Horses Understand Human Gestures

by Zoe Gough as published at BBC

Editor’s Note: “On this ‘Feel Good Sunday’ we would like to share with you an enlightening article from the BBC on how our equine companions might just be a little more perceptive than some may think.  Of course, to this readership, this is old news but it bears reinforcement for those who cast a blind eye to the uniqueness of all that is equine.  Enjoy your day, my friends, and by all means…keep the faith.” ~ R.T.

Horses can read human signals and use their own experiences when responding to tasks

Horses (Equus caballus) were first domesticated around 6,000 years ago and have performed many important roles since then, but their ability to understand the gestures of their human handlers remained unstudied until fairly recently.

To date research has suggested that while horses are able to understand some signalssuch as pointing, they are only able to use these signals when the human remains near to the reward.

Their level of ability has previously been said to be similar to that of goats and cats, they are able to use human gestures even though they cannot be said to understand the meaning attached to the gesture.

A study in 2004 suggested that horses had limited short-term memory and may not have a prospective memory, which reminds them to do something at a later date, but more recent studies have shown horses do use short-term memory in foraging tasks.

Now a group of Italian-based scientists have demonstrated that horses are not only capable of reading human actions but can also change the way they respond to a task based on their own experiences.

“It is easy to understand in humans but not usual when referring to animals,” said one of the authors, Dr Paolo Baragli, from the University of Pisa, Italy.

“If an animal doesn’t solve a task as we expected this doesn’t mean that it’s not able. There is the possibility that it is using a different strategy to what we expect.”

Twenty four adult horses of different breeds were trained to approach an overturned bucket and move it to find a carrot hidden underneath it. They were then split into two groups of 12.

The findings are published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

In the experiment the first group of horses had to find a piece of carrot under one of three overturned buckets after seeing a person hide it. The horses had to wait 10 seconds after it had been hidden and the person had left the area before attempting to locate it.

Speed over accuracy

The same experiment was carried out with another 12 horses that had to find the food on their own without any additional information from a human.

To begin with the horses that had seen the carrot being hidden chose the correct bucket on their first attempt more often than those who had not seen the carrot being hidden, although they took more time to do it.

Later the same horses found the carrot in less time but took more attempts to find it.

The authors suggest that this was because the human’s signals became less important, as the horses learned that they received the same reward whether they took the time to make a decision or simply guessed.

In the later trials, researchers also found that the horses that had seen the carrot being hidden tended to go to the bucket where they had found the food in their last attempt.

Survival skills

This indicates that horses can remember where food is hidden even after a delay, by understanding the meaning of a person being near to the target location (the bucket with the carrot underneath).

Horses are also able to change their decision-making strategy between the reliability suggested by human signals and a more immediate reward. This means they can choose whether or not to use signs given by humans depending on whether they desire speed or accuracy.

Dr Baragli said that rather than being developed abilities, the researchers think these cognitive skills are essential for the horse’s survival.

“To our knowledge this paper is the first to demonstrate that horses are able to make a choice based on information obtained by environmental stimulus (humans), and then the same horses can change their behavioural strategy based on experience to better solve the same problem,” Dr Baragli said.

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16 comments on “Horses Understand Human Gestures

  1. Horses and all animals are much more intelligent then humans give them credit for, and I think in many ways they’re smarter than us too.


  2. I totally agree with Barbara’s statement.. More often than not they outsmart me and a couple of mine do understand when I tell them to get back in the pasture and I’ll feed them. They know where to get back inside and they know to wait for me to own the gate. Nobody can tell me that horses aren’t smart or only do things on command. They think, they listen and they figure things out. Look at the escapes from stalls and paddocks when they own latches.. Scientists have really been lax in animal behavioral subjects..


  3. It is easy for me to compare this to our wild ones who still live in the wild – intelligence and communication are part of survival of the fittest in the wild.


  4. I lost my voice 20 years aho for a two week period. I was Raising 2 Stallions. They were my entire world. When I couldnt talk to the horses it occurred to me they understood Everything. I gestured with one finger to an anxious stud he couldnt mount a mare but i would turn him out to lope around the anxiety. I put my finger up for one minute signal. He understood and simply stood there and waited. I learned that they knew when pointed out they knew to go or I waved them in they galloped up. They also learned that open arms meant come up for hug placing heads over my shoulder themselves. I learned when I was angry and flipped off my fiance….oh like youve never had a moment of weakness…….the horses looked wide eyed and shocked. I also found that expirience valuable to my horse training. Not giving away secrets to other trainers and riders gave me an understanding with those studs. I didnt have to use force or exert myself when I had gestures. I almost enjoyed not having a voice. I learned when the second stallion got out and I still couldnt say anything that the gesture for get over here and bad boy were clearly registered in the horses mind and eyes when instead of running loose he came back from outside the mare padfocks willingly and lowered his head to accept being in trouble. No science is required. As humans we Assume that we are here to teach andv train every creature. Thats based on the theory animals know nothing however I base my theory on the opposite and assume mans the idiot. And I dont buy into horse and lion theory for bucking anymore. Thats mans assumption. Maybe horses merely saw themselves as equal and didnt like hauling dumba##@ who see them as less on their backs. I mean really is man that arrogant? Of course. Can horses think? Absolutely. I had one stallion turn his butt and stand facing away from a man I knew who couldnt stand horses. I also know that when my voice returned I taught my 16 Hand stallion to take baby steps so tiny he barely appeared to move by simply saying baby steps. When my mother died my greif was overwhelming and I stood in the barn aisle at a show and looked down at ground….my stallion simply walked up and wiped the tears away with his face then slipped his head over my shoulderand pulled me into his neck then he too hung his head and stared at the ground with me. He knew I was looking at where so many shows before we with my mother had stood together by that stall in that aisle. He KNEW.


  5. My horses are very communicative. They use their head to point. If they would like some hay, they turn to look at the hay until they notice I am watching. If they want to visit with the barn cat, they stop and look at the cat, we walk over, sniff a bit and go on our way. I dropped my jacket on the ground while I was riding. My horse turned to look at me, so I pointed to the jacket. She picked the jacket up with her teeth. She tried to flip it to me, but this part didn’t work, Horses are extremely smart, but their language is largely silent—this is also a survival skill. If they were more vocal, they would have been much easier for predators to find. They also learn through mimicry.


  6. Storytime With Lukas, The World’s Smartest Horse
    from Karen Murdock Lukas is an 18 year old ex-racer and former rescue. He holds a Guiness World Record and has been recognized by the World’s Records Academy as the World’s Smartest Horse


  7. “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of
    animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated
    artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of
    his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image
    in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their
    tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we
    err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by the man.
    In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and
    complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never
    attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren,
    they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves
    in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and
    travail of the earth.”
    Henry Beston


  8. Thank you all for comments. We talk about natural horsemanship. But really you guys who is training who? When I lost my Nicholas last year, I realized how lost I was without that interaction. How was is that all my horses knew when I arrived at the barn where I boarded. So smart and intelligent.


    • Many of us have lost our four-legged friends who we highly respected and how incredible that any of us who were/are lucky enough to have that experience in our lives. I hope they knew how much we loved and respected them and how much we learned from them and how thankful we are that we had the chance to know them. This is also true if you are lucky enough to spend time with them in the wild today. Ask R.T. because he will confirm there is nothing in the world like being in the same “space” with a wild one.


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