There seems to be a common misconception that horses are not very intelligent, although I am sure all horse-owners would disagree. A recent scientific study led by Dr Cecilie Mejdell of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute in Oslo , has established that horses are one of a small group of animals (including dolphins and apes) who can communicate with us by pointing at symbols.
In the course of the study, scientists trained horses to touch boards with their noses to show if they wanted to wear a rug, by offering pieces of carrot as incentives. The horses’ requests matched the weather conditions, which indicates that the choices were not random. It is significant, as in Norway and other Nordic countries, it is common practice for horses to wear blankets in all weathers. Dr Mejdell said that the researchers want next to find a way to ask the horse if he/she liked wearing the blanket. She commented: “ I feel that our research adds to what we already know about equine cognition – about how horses learn and what they think. This study shows that by using the correct methods, horses can communicate, and express their opinions and preferences.”
In the course of the two-week study, the scientists worked with horse trainers to teach 23 horses of different breeds how to communicate with humans. The horses were taught to approach a board hanging on a fence, and to tell the difference between different symbols on the board, representing having a blanket on or off, and then they were taught to associate a particular action with the symbols. By the end of the training, the horse could signal if they felt too hot or cold by approaching the board in question and asking for the rug to be put on or taken off them.
The horses asked for the blanket in cold, wet weather, but not in warm, sunny weather, showing that they were making decisions themselves, through their own motivations, not that of the trainers, explained the scientists. They hope to use this training method to ask the horses more questions and believe that horse-owners in general will be able to train their animals this way.
Another study in the UK, from 2016, showed that horses can distinguish between angry and happy human facial expressions.
The theory is, that domestication of horses may have enabled them to understand human behavior. This study is published in the journal, Applied Animal Behavior Science.