How well do horses understand their human counterparts?
As humans, we have shared much of our history with horses. Equine companions have pulled our cultures and civilizations forward, working in transportation, farming, hunting, and sport. We have relied on equines for millennia, but it was not until recently that we studied their intellect and problem-solving skills in an attempt to uncover how much of the human-horse bond is measurable.

In a recent article published in the journal Animal Cognition, two Japanese researchers from Kobe University shared new information regarding how much horses understand about us and the rela-tionships we have with them. The study showed that when horses face a problem that they cannot solve, they use signals to get human attention and ask for help. Scientists Monamie Ringhofer and Shinya Yamamoto designed a test in which the horses would see a human put a carrot into a bucket that was accessible only to a human care-taker. Some of the horses were shown the carrot going into the bucket while the care-taker watched. Others were shown the food being added without a caretaker present. The horses’ actions were recorded on video.

The results showed that the horses behaved differently when they knew that the care-taker was not shown the bucket. They seemed to try harder to make their caretakers aware of the food with tactile and visual signals than when they knew that the caretakers saw the food being added to the bucket. The horses tried to get the human’s attention by looking at them and touching them with their muzzle or pushing them toward the bucket more often than the horses that knew the caretaker was aware of the food. Other species have been shown to interact with humans this way, especially our close relatives, primates. Dogs have also shown the capacity to interact with humans based on what they think a human knows, though it is interesting to note that they seem to show the human where to look by alternating their own gaze from the human to the item of interest. Based on this experiment, horses are much more physical, using touch and even pushes to show the human what they’d like them to see. Ringhofer and Yamamoto noted, “This study is the first to show that horses possess some ability of understanding others’ knowledge states in social communication with humans.”

Though more research is needed to confirm and expand upon these results, the study seems to show that horses have much more understanding of their human companions than was once thought. A knowledge of what others understand—especially those of another species—is a sophisticated level of thought that is still being studied in human children. For most of the history of horse domestication, we’ve assumed that communications between humans and horses was unidirectional. Humans order. Horses obey. But in this study, we see that communication could be a two-way street,” science journalist and equestrian Wendy Williams, author of The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion, told National Public Radio earlier this year, “Horses do try to communicate with humans. Most of us just don’t try to learn their language”.

When horses are in trouble they ask humans for help, December 15, 2016, Kobe University