In the fall of 2016, I was gobsmacked by research out of Norway indicating horses could be trained to use symbols to communicate to their handlers, “put blanket on” and “take blanket off.” This seemed to indicate horses may have cognitive processes considerably beyond what we normally ascribe to them. Intrigued, I began keeping track of other recent research into equine intelligence, and what I learned about how smart horses can be was astonishing.
Whereas just 15 years ago scientists were still questioning whether horses (and other mammals) even experience emotions, research now seems to indicate equines may in fact have some of the same cognitive abilities as we do, only at a different level.
Here, I’m going to share the latest research into equine cognition, including details of that compelling blanket-on/-off study. What you’ll learn may amaze you. More importantly, it may help you better understand how to relate to your horse, bond with him, even train him.
First, a quick look at how the study of animal intelligence has evolved.
Not So ‘Dumb’
You might say we’ve come a long way, baby. René Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher, believed animals were mindless machines that could neither reason nor feel pain. The work of the Russian Ivan Pavlov in the 19th century and American B. F. Skinner in the early 20th portrayed animals as merely reacting reflexively to their environment or behaving only in response to positive or negative reinforcement.
In fact, until only fairly recently, “anyone who ascribed an underlying emotion to an animal’s behavior was simply being anthropomorphic, projecting human feelings onto what were merely ‘dumb animals,’” observes Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist writing in Veterinary Practice News online. “The extreme behaviorist’s view that animals’ behavior is to be observed and measured but not interpreted prevailed through much of the last century.”
And left traces in the current century, as well. In September 2003, Horse&Rider published a feature titled, “Do Horses Have Emotions?” Experts quoted in the piece argued the proposition both ways, with one even suggesting a mare’s distress at having her foal taken away could be just a stimulus-response rather than proof of an emotional bond.
Meanwhile, most horse owners—including H&R readers—were saying, “Duh! Of course, our horses (and dogs and cats, for that matter) have emotions.”
Today, it’s generally accepted that animals do indeed experience primary emotions at least—such as fear, anger, rage, surprise, joy, and disgust. Now the controversy swirls around whether they can have secondary emotions, as well. Secondary emotions—such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, and jealousy—are more complicated and tend to arise less rapidly.
Dodman says secondary emotions “require greater cognitive ability and acceptance that animals have ‘theory of mind,’” a concept that “implies self-awareness and the ability to understand that other individuals may possess information and agendas that are different from one’s own.”
In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, ethologist Frans de Waal argues that theory of mind—“the ability to grasp the mental states of others”—has more to do with body reading than mind reading. “It allows us to look at a situation from the viewpoint of another, which is why I prefer the term perspective taking,” he writes.
We now know beyond doubt that horses are superb body-readers; might this suggest they possess some degree of the theory of mind?
Current research seems to point in that direction, and toward a surprising range of cognitive abilities in general.
Let’s take a look.
• Blanket, no blanket: “Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences,” July 2016, Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
• Touch-screen use: “A horse’s-eye view: size and shape discrimination compared with other mammals,” November 2015, Biology Letters.
• Facial expressions: “Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus),” February 2016, Biology Letters.
• Body language: “Domestic horses (Equus caballus) prefer to approach humans displaying a submissive body posture rather than a dominant body posture,” October 2017, Animal Cognition.
• Sending signals: “Domestic horses send signals to humans when they are faced with an unsolvable task,” November 2016, Animal Cognition.
The Recent Studies
Blanket/no blanket. In this 2016 study, Norwegian researchers trained 22 horses representing various breeds to understand symbols painted on white wooden boards. The symbol on one board meant “put blanket on.” On another, “take blanket off.” A blank board meant “no change.”
The researchers first trained the horses to touch the boards with their muzzles. Then they taught them to associate each symbol with the action it represented—put blanket on, take it off, or no change. The horses were also taught they could make a choice, and that there was no wrong answer—critically important for getting them to participate freely.
Then, under varying weather conditions, the horses were asked to select which action they wanted…and here’s where it got really interesting.
On one warm, sunny day, 10 of 22 horses were already wearing blankets, and when asked to choose, all 10 chose the “blanket off” symbol. On a 45-degree day, 10 of the horses already wearing blankets selected “no change.” Not only that but of the 12 horses not wearing blankets that day, 10 selected the “blanket on” option.
An eye-opening result—especially for owners who’ve often wondered whether their horse actually wants a blanket or not. What might it mean for the possibility of additional communication of this type going forward? Only more research will tell us.
Touch-screen use. In this 2015 study, researchers in Japan used 42-inch LCD touch-screen computer monitors—a system they’d previously used with chimpanzees—to test three ponies’ abilities to discriminate shapes and sizes.
When a pony placed his muzzle on the size or shape he’d previously been trained to recognize, he heard a signal, and a treat was automatically dispensed into a bowl under the screen.
For the sake of comparison, humans and chimpanzees also participated in the experiment, and researchers found the ponies performed about as well as the chimps and humans did in discriminating shape differences.
One special significance of this work is that it demonstrates a way to test horses without the risk of human influence in the results—the so-called “Clever Hans” effect. In the early 1800s, Clever Hans was a horse that appeared to be able to do simple math. In reality he couldn’t, but he was marvelously perceptive in picking up subconscious body-language cues from his owner, which tipped him off to the correct answer.
Use of the computer-monitor system will enable further looks into the mind of the horse that are free from potential human “interference,” offering results with the greatest possible validity.
Facial expressions. A 2016 study at the University of Sussex in England showed that horses can distinguish between smiling and frowning human faces. Twenty-eight horses were shown large photographs of a man’s face expressing either a positive or negative emotion. The horses’ heart rates increased significantly when they looked at the angry faces, plus they tended to look at them out of their left eye, which transmits input to the right side of the brain, where negative stimuli are processed.
The researchers also noted that horses themselves have many facial expressions that are similar to those of humans, which may have aided them in deciphering the emotions.
Have you ever had your bad mood leak over onto your horse? This expression-reading ability could be one of the ways it happens.
Body language. A 2017 study, also at the University of Sussex, proved empirically what horse people already knew: that horses can tell the difference between dominant and submissive body postures in humans—even unfamiliar ones.
Working with 30 horses, researchers found that the horses were more likely to approach a person in a submissive posture (slouched, arms and legs close to the body, relaxed knees) than in a dominant one (erect, arms and legs apart, chest expanded). This was true even when the horses had previously received treats from all the humans in the experiment.
[READ: Facial Expressions Signal Pain]
That horses are “super readers” of body language is something to keep in mind whenever we’re around them, so that what we intend and what our bodies are “saying” are consistently aligned.
Sending signals. One of the most intriguing studies, and one which suggests horses may possess some cognitive basis for understanding others’ knowledge state—again, theory of mind—is the 2016 experiment at Japan’s Kobe University.
Eight horses watched as a researcher placed a carrot in a bucket that was accessible only to a human caretaker. (In other words, the only way the horses could get the carrot would be for the caretaker to retrieve it from the bucket and give it to them.)
In the first part of the experiment, the caretaker witnessed the carrot going into the bucket just as the horses did. In the second part, the horses could see that the caretaker did not see the carrot being placed. The horses’ responses in each case were videotaped and compared.
When the caretaker had not seen the carrot placed, the horses used more visual and tactile signals—that is, looking at, touching, and/or lightly pushing the caretaker—than they did when they knew the caretaker had seen the carrot being placed.
This behavior suggests the horses were responding to the different perceived states of mind of the caretaker—either aware of the carrot or ignorant of it. And they quite logically used more effort to try to alert the ignorant caretaker of the carrot, in the hope of getting a treat.
In other words, they were acting a certain way based on what they thought was or was not in the caretaker’s mind.
Find More on Equine Intelligence at HorseandRider.com
• “Testing Equine Intelligence,” with Evelyn Hanggi, MS, PhD, of the Equine Research Foundation, Aptos, California.
• “What’s Your Horse Thinking?,” with animal scientist Temple Grandin, PhD.
• “Can Horses Read Our Minds?,” with science writer Stephen Budiansky at The Thinking Rider blog.
What It All Means
As excited as I personally am by all these studies—especially the blanket and carrot experiments—I know from experience what scientists would say about their implications.
Simply, that more research is needed.
Evelyn Hanggi, MS, Ph.D., of the Equine Research Foundation in Aptos, California (equineresearch.org), sums it up well.
“Do horses understand us? Of course. Do they communicate with us? Yes. Do we know for sure what’s going on in their minds at these times? Nope. Research to date has just grazed this subject and it will take many more studies to figure out what occurs within the thought processes of our equine partners,” she says.
Still, it’s hard not to look at the trajectory of how science—and attitudes—have evolved over the decades and not wonder about where we’re headed. It may well be that the differences between us and horses (and other mammals) are more quantitative than qualitative—in other words, a difference in degree more than in basic functioning.
I can’t help but think of an extreme analogy. Before Helen Keller’s teacher found the key to unlocking two-way communication, the deaf and blind girl seemed barely more than a wild animal. After communication—in the form of a tactile sign language—was established, her teacher and the world came to appreciate the intelligence that’d been hidden within.
Obviously, we’re not going to find that kind of hidden ability in horses or other animals. But, given the advances in modern methods and an honest, inquiring methodology, we might just be surprised at what we do find.