People may never talk with the animals like Dr. Doolittle, but scientists are hard at work trying to communicate with critters. The Wild Dolphin Project has already proven dolphins understand symbols. Other researchers at Georgia State University have created a symbolic language called ‘Yerkish‘ to talk with primates. Now the noble horse joins the roll call of smart animals who can understand, and use, symbols to make humans aware of their needs.
A new study at Applied Animal Behaviour Science shows how twenty three horses learned to tell trainers if they wanted to wear a blanket or not. Subjects were shown three symbols: a horizontal bar to say “I want a blanket”, a blank square for “No change”, and a vertical bar for “I don’t need a blanket”. They learned the meanings in a day or two and using them to convey if they were too warm or too cold, building the case for self-awareness.
Previous studies have shown horses enjoy learning for the sake of learning, a decidedly ‘human’ trait. Positive reinforcement and consideration for the horse’s temperment reduced their anxiety for punishment if they gave a ‘wrong’ answer. In fact, the horses’s behavior changed for the better during training because humans could finally understand them.
When horses realized that they were able to communicate with the trainers, i.e. to signal their wishes regarding blanketing, many became very eager in the training or testing situation. Some even tried to attract the attention of the trainers prior to the test situation, by vocalizing and running towards the trainers, and follow their movements. On a number of such occasions the horses were taken out and allowed to make a choice before its regular turn, and signalled that they wanted the blanket to be removed. It turned out that the horses were sweaty underneath the blanket.
I’m not surprised by their intelligence. About a year ago my wife dragged me to Pennsylvania for an overnight at her friend’s house. Her husband shared some Kunkletown lore. Some time ago a local carpenter kept horses to pull lumber to job sites. These beasts knew where to get hitched up, how to reach the job sites, and when to return for more lumber without human direction. Eventually the carpenter bought a truck then shot the horses because he didn’t need them anymore.
The hubris of human superiority clouds our understanding of animals, and our approach to the touchy topic of their intelligence. I maintain this conceit’s cultural, based in deep-seated guilt over humanity’s exploitation of animals and the challenges which may arise should they be considered our equals.
Making a huge leap here, what could our treatment of animals say about humanity’s prospects in a first contact scenario? Any sufficiently advanced intelligence could find humanity indistinguishable from the animals we eat or experiment on. Aliens may deem us sufficiently clever, having tamed the atom and thinking smartphones are a pretty neat idea, but not being in their league when it comes to sapience.
Yet if we could talk with the animals, grunt, squeak, and squawk with the animals, and vice versa, maybe aliens would be less inclined to dismiss us.
Or our four-legged friends could make a compelling case on our behalf for clemency.