When talking horse, it’s best to watch your tone

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Using the kind of speech adults use when talking to children helps communication with horses, say researchers. Photo: B. Lemaire, IFCE

Using the similar upbeat tone many adults use when talking to children appears to have benefits when dealing with horses, according to researchers.

Humans instinctively user a higher-pitched, upbeat voice when talking to babies and young children.

This way of talking has been the subject of multiple studies. It is known to have many benefits, fostering relationships and stimulating certain learning processes.

This way of talking, characterised by a generally high-pitched voice, the repetition of words and a wide pitch range, also has a positive emotional component.

Some animals are receptive to this way of speaking, which is known as pet-directed speech, or PDS.

In the case of primates and dogs, for example, humans are able to better catch and hold their attention when using PDS, and the animals often perform better while learning.

As for horses, numerous studies have shown that they are very sensitive to human emotions.

Researchers with the French science agency INRAE and the French Institute of Horse and Riding have already shown that horses are capable of recognising expressions of human faces on photographs, acting nervously when faced with an angry expression and more relaxed when faced with a happy face.

But pet-directed speech had never been studied in horses.

A preliminary survey of 845 riders and horse owners on social media revealed that 93% of them regularly spoke to their horses using this type of language, but only 44% thought that the animals were sensitive to it.

To assess its impact, researchers conducted two series of tests on 20 horses that had never been exposed to this type of language.

In the first test, the experimenter spoke to the horses individually, either using pet-directed speech or a neutral language (such as that used between adults), while grooming it.

When addressed using pet-directed speech, the horses were found to respond more favourably, the researchers reported in the journal Animal Cognition. They were calmer, looked more at the experimenter and mirrored their grooming gestures — rubbing the tip of their muzzle against them and trying to groom them back.

Such gestures were not observed in the horses addressed in neutral adult language.

In the second test, the experimenter tried to communicate information to the horse: The location of food.

In ethology, this is called referential communication. The experimenter stood in front of the horse with two closed buckets. With their arm, the assistant repeatedly pointed to the bucket that the horse had to choose to obtain the reward (hidden in the bucket), while speaking either with pet-directed speech or using neutral adult language.

They observed that when the experimenter spoke with neutral language, the horses chose a bucket at random.

However, when they spoke with pet-directed speech, the animals chose the bucket that had been indicated to them.

The study team concluded that pet-directed speech captures the attention of the animals, helping them to better understand the experimenter’s intentions and follow their instructions to achieve the task.

The study showed that the way people usually talk to young children, which humans tend to use instinctively with certain animals, effectively facilitates communication between humans and horses in everyday interactions, such as grooming and exercise.

This could contribute to improving the welfare of these animals, which are sensitive to human emotions.

Studies are currently under way to advance knowledge of the emotional interactions between humans and horses, to improve the welfare of both animals and humans in different fields, such as riding or riding therapy.

The full study team comprised Léa Lansade, Miléna Trösch, Céline Parias, Alice Blanchard, Elodie Gorosurreta and Ludovic Calandreau.

Léa Lansade, Miléna Trösch, Céline Parias, Alice Blanchard, Elodie Gorosurreta, Ludovic Calandreau, Horses are sensitive to baby talk : Pet-directed speech facilitates communication with humans in a pointing task and during grooming. Animal Cognition 2021. DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01487-3

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