Horses have preferences, which they appear motivated to communicate with us when given the opportunity. Some horses enjoy firm brushing while others prefer limited grooming, and handlers well-versed in their body language can often determine what a horse is enjoying or wanting more of but it is often difficult to tell for sure. Researchers recently trained horses to use symbols to communicate their preferences about being blanketed or not in a much less ambiguous way!

It took all 23 horses used in the trial less than 14 training days to grasp the concept of bumping one symbol with their nose to have their blanket removed, another to have a blanket put on, and a third to remain as they were. This rapid uptake speaks well of the chosen positive reinforcement conditioning scheme the researchers used, and perhaps also of the horses’ motivation to make a choice for their own thermal comfort.

The researchers reported that once the horses began to understand that they could communicate their wishes, many horses even attempted to get the trainer’s attention from the paddock on a testing day and immediately chose blanket off. On removing it, it was found that the horse had become sweaty under the blanket, making the reason for the choice obvious.

On warm days, with temperatures around 20ºC, horses consistently chose to have their blanket removed if they wore one, or chose no change if they did not. On days where the weather was cold (~9ºC), wet, and/or windy, all but two of the horses chose blanket on if they did not have one, or no change if they did. This indicates that horses’ preferences are individual, with some horses having a higher tolerance for cold temperatures than others, with blanketing preferences to match. This was expected by the researchers, and confirms what we see in our horses every day.

For the owner looking for a challenging training project, teaching your horse to discriminate between symbols related to his management could take some guesswork out of the many choices we have to make for our horses. But for those owners who may not have the expertise yet to accomplish this, simply paying attention to your horse’s behaviour during routine handling can give insight into his preferences. Encouraging this communication by honouring it will help your horse to express himself more freely, building your relationship and mutual understanding!

The article is open access and can be found with this reference:

Mejdell, C; Buvik, T; Jørgensen, G; Bøe, K. (2016) Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 184 pp 66-73.

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