AsianScientist (Dec. 23, 2016) – Researchers in Japan have shown that horses use visual and tactile signals to get human help when faced with unsolvable problems. The study, published in Animal Cognition, also suggests that horses alter their communicative behavior based on humans’ knowledge of the situation.
Communicating with other individuals in order to get information about foraging sites and predators is a valuable survival skill. Some domestic animals are also very good at communicating with humans; recent studies of dogs have revealed that they are excellent at understanding various human gestures and expressions. It is thought that these abilities were influenced by the domestication process.
Since they were domesticated 6,000 years ago, horses have contributed to human society in various shapes and forms, from transport to companionship. 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 study, a team led by 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 behaviors 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’ behavior 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 behavior in response to the knowledge levels of humans.
These two experiments suggest that horses possess high cognitive skills that enable them to flexibly alter their behavior towards humans according to humans’ knowledge state. To identify what 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.
The article can be found at: Ringhofer and Yamamoto (2016) Domestic Horses Send Signals to Humans When They Face with an Unsolvable Task.
Source: Kobe University; Photo: Pixabay.
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