Do horses understand our intentions?


Imagine you are at a dinner party. You would like to add some salt to your dish but the shaker is out of reach. You ask another person to pass it to you. They pick up the shaker and offer it to you, but before you can grab it, they put it back on the table out of your reach. It may be a stupid joke, but if they do it again, you’ll probably turn your attention away from them and ask another person for help (unless you want to get into an argument). That other person extends their hand with the shaker towards you, but it’s too far and you can reach the salt. You both may try for a while to reach each other, but at some point, you stop. You ask yet another person to help. They pick up the shaker and make a movement towards you but the shaker slips from their hand. They try again and clumsily lose it again. You are more likely to be patient and keep waiting for this person to get it right, as you know that they actually want to give you the salt shaker.

Based on peoples’ actions we can judge whether they are unwilling to give us something, or whether they are willing but unable to do so. And this judgement informs our reactions. Research shows that horses also react differently in such circumstances, suggesting that they may be able to interpret our intentions.

Horses were tested in a stall with the front covered by a transparent plastic plate with a small hole in the middle, big enough for a human hand to go through. A table was placed just outside the stall and the experimenter stood on the other side of it. Each of the horses saw the person behaving according to three different conditions (in random order):

Unwilling: the person put the piece of the food on the table, then picked it up and moved it to just in front of the hole. Then they put it back on the table before the horse could reach it.

Unable blocked: The person behaved in the same way as above, but now the hole was covered by another piece of transparent plastic.

Unable clumsy: As above the experimenter put a piece of the food on the table, picked it up and moved towards the now open hole, but dropped it on the table before the horse could reach it.

The researchers measured how much time the horses looked at the scene before turning away and how much time they spent touching the plastic divider with their noses. Both actions can be interpreted as a measure of interest and the latter also as an attempt to seek attention from the human.

Horses seemed to be the most interested in situations with the clumsy experimenter. They looked the longest and touched the divider the longest. The opposite was true for the situation when the person was unwilling to give them the food. When the hole was blocked horses turned away as fast as for the unwilling condition but pressed their nose against the plastic for a duration that was in-between the other two conditions. This shows that horses changed their behaviour based on human actions and might have been able to understand the experimenter’s intentions.

We can’t fully exclude a simpler explanation, for example, that the clumsy condition was somehow more interesting since the experimenter performed slightly different actions than in the other two conditions. However, that doesn’t explain the difference between the unwilling and unable blocked conditions where the gestures of the experimenter were identical. If the horses realised that the blocked hole made access to food impossible, they should have shown more interest in the unwilling conditions where the hole was open, which was not the case. However, this could explain the difference between the unable blocked and unable clumsy conditions.

All in all, horses responded differently to human actions that suggested person’s unwillingness rather than their inability to give food in a similar way that monkeys do in comparable experiments. So far horses are the only domesticated animals for which this has been tested. We know these animals are very sensitive to human behaviour, emotions and attention. I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if they could understand the intentions of our actions as well. 

Photo: Alina Vilchenko

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