February 1, 2017 –  When horses face unsolvable problems they use visual and tactile signals to get human attention and ask for help, researchers at Japan’s Kobe University Graduate School of Intercultural Studies have discovered. The study also suggests that horses alter their communicative behaviour based on humans’ knowledge of the problematic situation.

Some companion animals are very good at communicating with humans – recent studies of dogs have revealed that they are excellent at understanding various human gestures, expressions and even phrases and words. It is thought that these abilities were influenced by the domestication process.

Horses were first domesticated some 6000 years ago. The high social cognitive skills of horses towards humans might partially explain why humans and horses have a collaborative relationship today. However, the scientific evidence for this ability is still scarce.

In this new study, Research Fellow Monamie Ringhoffer and Associate Professor Shinya Yamamoto investigated horses’ social cognitive skills with humans in a problem-solving situation where food was hidden in a place accessible only to humans. The experiment was carried out in a paddock belonging to the equestrian club at Kobe University, where eight horses from the club participated with the cooperation of their student caretakers.

For the first experiment, an assistant experimenter hid food (carrots) in a bucket which the horse could not reach. The researchers observed whether and how the horse sent signals to the caretaker when the caretaker (unaware of the situation) arrived. The horse stayed near the caretaker and looked at, touched and pushed the caretaker. These behaviours occurred over a significantly longer period compared to cases when they carried out the experiment without hiding the food. The results showed that when horses cannot solve problems by themselves they send signals to humans both visually (looking) and physically (touching and pushing).

Building on these results, for the second experiment they tested whether the horses’ behaviour changed based on the caretakers’ knowledge of the hidden food. If the caretaker hadn’t watched the food being hidden, the horses gave more signals, demonstrating that horses can change their behaviour in response to the knowledge levels of humans.

These two experiments revealed some behaviours used by horses to communicate demands to humans. They also suggest that horses possess high cognitive skills that enable them to flexibly alter their behaviour towards humans according to humans’ knowledge state. This high social cognitive ability may have been acquired during the domestication process. In order to identify the characteristic that enables horses to form close bonds with humans, in future research the team aims to compare communication between horses, as well as looking more closely at the social cognitive ability of horses in their communication with humans.

By deepening our understanding of the cognitive abilities held by species who have close relationships with humans, and making comparisons with the cognitive abilities of species such as primates who are evolutionarily close to humans, we can investigate the development of unique communication traits in domesticated animals. This is connected to the influence of domestication on the cognitive ability of animals, and can potentially provide valuable information for realizing stronger bonds between humans and animals.

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