Last September a paper came to the intriguing conclusion horses can understand abstract symbols. In a nutshell, horses learned how they could point to three symbols to let their caretakers know if the horses needed a blanket, or wanted their blanket taken off, or leave well enough alone. When the horses realized their demands were getting through the humans’s thick skulls, they lined up to participate in the study to promote interspecies communication. This study was just the first step in scientifically assessing the communication skills, and intelligence, of herbivorous perissodactyls also known as horses.
Until recently serious inquiry into animal intelligence has focused on primates, which is not surprising since they’re our cousins. They have hands, which means they can futz around with smartphones. Monkeys and apes have similar vocal anatomy as humans but lack the brain wiring to take full advantage of their capabilities. Let’s not forget our cousins are highly social, like us, and what’s a little nepotism between primates? Horses are also highly social, observing dominance hierarchies in their herds. They understand the importance of eye contact and gestures while seeking the attention of humans and other horses.
A clever new study plays on this knack, illustrating how horses will ask humans for help in situations when they can’t complete a task. The set-up uses a horse and two humans. One human’s job is to be oblivious to the world while the other’s an active participant. Phase one of the test had the active human put a carrot in a covered bucket in full view of the horse, then leave. The ‘oblivious’ human came out afterwards to keep the horse company. Phase two of the test had the oblivious human present while the active human showed how they were putting a carrot into a covered bucket. Each time the horses would make eye contact with the oblivious human, gesture, and touch them to get their attention. What was interesting about the whole experiment is the horses were more insistent with the oblivious human in phase one, as if that human needed to be convinced.
The study’s author, Monamie Ringhofer, concludes:
Further investigation of the social cognitive abilities of horses and other domestic animals and comparison with other non-domestic animals, such as primates, will improve our understanding of how domestication has influenced animals and provide insight into the evolutionary and developmental process of advanced social cognition that domestic animals possess.
And perhaps more importantly, did humans domesticate horses or did they domesticate us? After all, without their help we’d probably still be foraging for food in the woods.