Would your horse believe you if you told him where to find a hidden carrot? It might—if it thought you knew where that carrot was.
Results of a study by French and Japanese behaviorists showed that horses can tell whether we’ve been paying attention and then decide whether to trust the information we give them. Monamie Ringhofer, PhD, senior lecturer of the Department of Animal Sciences at Teikyo University of Science said if horses saw us watch the carrot go into the bucket they’re more likely to choose the bucket we point to.
Until now, this “sophisticated skill” had only observed in dogs and humans, Ringhofer said.
“The horses in this study followed the pointing of an informant who had the knowledge of the food-hiding place more than the other informant who didn’t have the knowledge of the food hiding place,” Monamie Ringhofer said. “So this shows that horses perceive the pointing gesture as a communicative cue—in other words, it transfers some information—and not as a command.”
Pointing: Not a Command, But Information-Sharing
Depending on how long the person points or the horse’s training background, horses tend to go towards the bucket a person points at. This could be found out by previous research.
Ringhofer said that scientists had not considered whether horses follow pointing cues blindly or if they consider whether the human knows the carrot’s location. She showed in an earlier study that horses could tell when people knew where food was hidden—based on whether the person had seen it being hidden.
So Ringhofer and other scientists wanted to test horses in an experiment originally designed for dogs. The animals watched as one person pretended to place food in one of two containers, which were blocked from the animals’ view. (The smell wouldn’t influence the container choice because the animals didn’t know, that both container had food in them.) They could also see a second and third person nearby: One person faced the food-hider, and the other faced away.
After putting the food in one container, the food-hider left the scene, and the two other people each pointed to one of the two containers. The barrier was removed and the animal was released to make a choice.
In the dog experiment, the dogs were much more likely to choose the container indicated by the person that had been seen the food being hidden, Ringhofer said.
In this new horse study the horses are likely to make the same decisions as the dogs. They seemed to “trust” the pointing gesture when it appeared the person had seen where the carrot had dropped, said Ringhofer
Horses Know—But Only If They Were Paying Attention
Despite these general results, a major role played the horse’s attention level, said Ringhofer. The more focused horses were far more likely to make the connection between the pointing gesture and the possibility that the person had seen where the carrot went.
“These results indicate that horses with sustained attention (low level of attention loss) can distinguish a person who knows the food-hiding place and a person who doesn’t,” Ringhofer told The Horse.
Just because some horses didn’t make the connection between pointing and the person’s knowledge, it doesn’t mean necessarily that they’re less intelligent. More like less motivated to pay attention.
Horses Are Sensitive and Sometimes Need More Motivation
In combination the findings suggests when horses are paying attention, they notice where we’re looking and what we focus on, Ringhofer said. That implies theoretically they can generally conclude whether we would know something.
That means practically we should recognize the extent to which horses are watching us and gathering information, the scientist said.
“People should keep in mind and be careful that horses are quite sensitive to our attentional state and gestures when they interact with horses,” said Ringhofer. It also means we should consider our horse’s motivation and attention levels more when working with them, she added.
“We have to think about horses’ motivation toward something we teach or train and judge their abilities for these things not only by their outcome (performance) but also by their motivation level,” Ringhofer said. “There’s a possibility that when a horse has difficulty learning something, it might be better to think about increasing the horse’s motivation toward what we teach, in some cases.”