The news will come as no surprise to many but science has just confirmed what was received wisdom in the equestrian community: horses can communicate with us and express their opinion.
With the help of some professional horse trainers, researchers Cecilie Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete Jørgensen and Knut Bøe of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute successfully taught several horses to show whether they wanted to wear a rug or not.
Thirteen cold-bloods and ten warm-bloods were first trained to approach and touch a painted board showing three different symbols, then to understand the meaning of each of these symbols. A horizontal bar meant that a rug would be put on the horse, a vertical bar meant that the rug would be taken off and blank board meant there would be no change.
After 10 to 14 days of training, the horses were able to touch the appropriate symbol to indicate when they wanted a rug put on, removed or left unchanged. Their preferences matched the weather pattern.
“When 22 horses were tested on either of two sunny days with a relatively high ambient temperature, all the 10 horses wearing a blanket that day signalled that they wanted it taken off, and all the 12 horses not wearing a blanket signalled that they wanted to continue to be without a blanket,” wrote the researchers in a paper published on the Applied Animal Behaviour Science journal.
“When the same 22 horses were tested on either of two days with continuous rain (and ambient temperature 5 °C and 9 °C, respectively) all the 10 horses wearing a blanket signalled that they did not want any change. Among the 12 horses not wearing a blanket, 10 asked for a blanket to be put on, whereas 2 horses signalled that they wanted to stay unchanged. However, the same 2 horses touched the ‘blanket on’ symbol on two other test days with perhaps even more challenging weather conditions.”
The horses also appeared to relish the prospect of ‘talking’ to people: “When they realised 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,” according to the researchers.