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Study Reveals Horses Can Directly ‘Talk’ to Humans

Horses are special in so many ways. They carry us on their backs over long distances, galloping at breakneck speed and leaping over obstacles if we ask them to.

They also seem to always know how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking and show us affection at just the right times to cheer us up. But what if I told you they can even talk to us?!

Research can now confirm that horses do indeed try to intentionally communicate with humans to achieve certain goals.

Study Confirms Horses Speak to Humans

The groundbreaking paper “Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans” first appeared in the April 2016 issue of Animal Cognition.

The paper published the results of an experiment lead by two European scientists: 

  • Rachele Malavasi, PhD, scientific advisor of the School of Ethical Equitation in Moncigoli Di Fivizzano, Italy
  • Ludwig Huber, PhD, professor at the Comparative Cognition Unit at the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria

So what exactly is referential communication? According to the scientists, it occurs when a sender is able to use gestures to direct the receiver’s attention to a specific subject and inform them clearly of the desired goal.

In other words, it’s the ability to communicate about something and get that message across to someone else.

While this comes naturally to us, there are very few domestic species that have the same ability. Two, to be exact: the dog and, a more recent discovery, the horse.

Woman and horse speaking to each other

How Did They Perform the Experiment?

Malavasi and Huber’s plan was simple. They placed a bucket of treats (apples, carrots and oats) just beyond a gate and asked the experimenter to stand next to it.

They then positioned each horse on the opposite side of the gate and waited for the scene to play out.

The horses were well aware of what was in the bucket and wanted it desperately. However, as it was just out of reach, their only chance was to communicate to the handler “Give me that bucket!”. To see the length horses would go to get the message across, the handler was instructed to just stand there and do nothing.

The scientists also manipulated the handler’s attentional state by asking her to turn in different directions:

  • facing the horse
  • facing away from the horse
  • walking away from the horse
  • facing the horse with other people also present

Malavasi and Huber observed 14 horses in total.

Results of the Study

As it turns out, horses can be quite creative in expressing themselves! They would start by looking back and forth from the experimenter to the bucket, in an effort of trying to direct the handler’s attention to the desired reward.

But if that didn’t work, they went on to try a variety of different strategies. They would nod their heads, swish their tails and point at the bucket by quickly moving their heads towards it.

Malavasi explained that the horses were much more eager to communicate when the handler was actually looking at them.

When the handler was looking or facing away, the horses tried to get her attention first by searching for eye contact. If unsuccessful, they would walk up to the experimenter and touch her. Throughout the experiment, horses proved to be fairly perseverent in their communication.

Girl kissing a horse and communicating

What Does This All Mean?

“Our study demonstrated that horses can not only read us, but can adopt strategies to convey our attention and actions to the desired outcome.”- Rachele Malavasi

This is the first study to reveal such findings in an ungulate species. It proves that horses do not just act without consideration. Instead, they are capable of creating a mental plan to solve a specific problem.

What’s more, they can also modify their communicative strategy depending on the attentional state of the receiver. Who would’ve thought! “We found some horses were very ‘talkative,’ whereas others would use very subtle signals,” Malavasi added.

All in all, the horses certainly demonstrated their ability to conduct fairly elaborate communication.

What’s Next For The Research Into Horse Communication?

Before we can generalize the study’s findings, it is important to note that it was carried out at the School of Ethical Equitation. Here they do not teach horses fixed behavioral patterns, but instead encourage them to be creative and work together with humans.

These horses are given more behavioural freedom than the ones living at a standard equine facility. The scientists think this might have affected the way they responded to the experiment.

“The next step will be that of repeating the study in a traditional equestrian center, where we expect to find opposite results.” – they revealed.

The scientists also believe that some horses have given up trying to communicate with us because we never listen. This might explain why their abiltiy to talk to humans remained hidden for such a long time.

So the next time you go out on the field, spend some time just observing your horse’s behavior. You’ll see that getting to know him or her as an individual will greatly improve your communication and relationship over time.

Also, read our fun article on the signs a horse likes you.

Share your thoughts, or ask a question:
Comments 8

Comments

Shon Edwards

Sunday 20th of June 2021

I'm not a bit surprised that many animals can communicate with humans. Our little pup died two weeks ago :(. He could say things like pawing us meant "more food". He could literally say "let's go!!" when he wanted to go for a walk. I have heard dogs say "I love you" and many other things. We have a pair of cockatiels which are incredibly intelligent, too.

Henrietta Szathmary

Sunday 20th of June 2021

Hi Shon,

Thanks for sharing and sorry to hear about your puppy :(( Dogs are just incredible creatures and able to give so much love ❤

M Johnson

Wednesday 16th of June 2021

I had a horse who would flip an outdoor light switch on when his feed was not delivered on time. I have a mare who I believe is attempting to mimic vocal sounds by changing her breathing.

Henrietta Szathmary

Wednesday 16th of June 2021

Wow thanks for sharing!

Julie Wethington

Monday 21st of December 2020

My dear old horse dragged the water through out of the barn when it was empty. There was a mix up on who was supposed to clean and refill it. So Bayjon too control of the situation and moved the trough right out in the open where we could see it from the house.?

Henrietta Szathmary

Tuesday 22nd of December 2020

Haha cheeky horse!

Brian Clapham

Sunday 20th of December 2020

My horse did exactly that when he wanted to tell me the automatic water-feed in his box wasn't working, repeatedly pointing at the water bowl and then looking at me. Likewise when the livery stables gave him mouldy hay, he pawed it a couple of times and looked at me, then did it again. Both times I got the message and fixed things for him. Who says they can't talk?

Shon Edwards

Sunday 20th of June 2021

@Brian Clapham, very cool insights, Brian!

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