Horses were able to convey their preference for blanket-wearing in a study conducted in Norway.
The researchers reported in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science that they successfully trained all 23 horses used in the study to convey their choice by pointing to symbols. The horse used were of various ages and breeds.
They were able to signal whether they wanted their blanket put on, taken off, or left unchanged.
All the horses were performing well in the experiment following two weeks of training.
The study team, comprising Cecilie Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete Jørgensen and Knut Bøe, described how they taught the horses to communicate by touching one of three different visual symbols on white painted wooden display boards to tell the handler their blanketing preference.
The horses each received 10 to 15 minutes of training a day under a 10-step program in which reward-based conditioning was used to teach horses to approach and touch the symbols, and to understand their meaning. A simple black horizontal bar meant “put blanket on” while a vertical black bar meant “take blanket off”. A blank white board in the middle meant “no change”.
The horses were each exposed to hot and cold during the learning phase to help their learning and to check their level of understanding.
The authors explained how they set a learning criterion of 8–14 successive correct trials before proceeding with the experiment. This, on average, occurred after 11 days of training, and all the horses were performing successfully by the 14-day cut-off nominated by the researchers.
Each horse was then offered a free-choice situation under differing weather conditions, being able to choose from the “no change” symbol and the symbol for either “blanket on” or “blanket off”, depending on whether each already wore a blanket or not.
“Results show that choices made, i.e. the symbol touched, was not random but dependent on weather,” Mejdell and her colleagues reported.
“Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold.”
This, they said, indicated that the horses not only had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on their own thermal comfort, but they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols.
The results indicated that the horses had no difficulties learning to discriminate between the three simple visual symbols, they said.
Warm-blood types needed fewer training days than cold-blood breeds, they noted. However, the horses that had a slower learning progression performed just as well as the others once they had grasped the task
The method used in the study was a new tool for studying preferences in horses, they said.
The authors were variously affiliated with the Norwegian Veterinary Institute, Trondheim Hundeskole, the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research, and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences
Cecilie M. Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete H.M. Jørgensen, Knut E. Bøe
The full study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read online here.