Horses can communicate their wishes to humans through positivity - study / News / The Foreigner

Horses can communicate their wishes to humans through positivity - study. The four-legged friends can express preferences through visual aids, scientists in Norway find. The aim of the study was to see if the animals could tell humans whether they wanted a blanket on or off their backs. It was conducted in central Norway’s Trøndelag – a region which gets quite cold in the winter. “We wanted to see if we could ask horses to do similar preference tests that have been done before on other species,” Grete H.M. Jørgensen, PhD researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) in eastern Norway’s Ås tells The Foreigner.

horses, study, communication, animals, science, scientists, researchers, paywall



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Horses can communicate their wishes to humans through positivity - study

Published on Friday, 30th September, 2016 at 13:59 under the news category, by Michael Sandelson and Sarah Bostock   .
Last Updated on 30th September 2016 at 17:23.

The four-legged friends can express preferences through visual aids, scientists in Norway find.

Norwegian Fjord Horse
This breed was one several others used in the study.Norwegian Fjord Horse
Photo: © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki


The aim of the study was to see if the animals could tell humans whether they wanted a blanket on or off their backs. It was conducted in central Norway’s Trøndelag – a region which gets quite cold in the winter.

“We wanted to see if we could ask horses to do similar preference tests that have been done before on other species,” Grete H.M. Jørgensen, PhD researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) in eastern Norway’s Ås tells The Foreigner.

To investigate this, she teamed up with other two scientists. They were Dr Cecilie M. Mejdell at Oslo’s Norwegian Veterinary Institute, and Knut E. Bøe at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Department of Animal and Aquacultural Sciences in Ås.

Positivity          

Overview of Trondheim (2008)
Overview of Trondheim (2008)
Åge Hojem/Trondheim Havn
They began to work with horse trainer Turid Buvik, employed at Sør-Trøndelag County’s Trondheim Hundeskole, teaching 23 different horses on how to communicate with humans.

“We trusted that they were able to learn this,” says Ms Jørgensen. “All the researchers involved have personal knowledge of horses and know that they are quite capable of learning and communicating their needs.”

The animals were trained for 15 minutes each day for two weeks using a method that scientists had to develop there and them, which also involved slices of carrot.

“We used positive, rather than negative reinforcement, giving them a reward when they tried to touch symbols. It worked, but we actually had some trouble at the start. The horses were privately-owned, coming with their own baggage of expectations and prior experience,” she explains.

The researchers had to spend some time teaching some of the horses both to learn to communicate, and that they would not be punished if they did things wrongly. These animals had to be motivated to interact with humans in a new way.

“Other horses that were used to positive rewards were much more eager to show humans what they could do,” Ms Jørgensen comments.

Different conditions

A horse in a blanket
A horse in a blanket
Roland zh/Wikimedia Commons
During the research, the horses touched their muzzle against one of three symbols to show their wishes. They were: a horizontal black line, a vertical line, and a blank space. These indicated wanting a blanket, not wanting it, and ‘no change’, respectively.

Using different temperatures of between 5 and 23 degrees Celsius (some 41-73 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists discovered that the animals preferred a blanket during wet, windy, or cold weather. They did not want it whilst in the sun.

Ten horses with blankets on that were tested at the lower end of the temperature range indicated ‘no change’ (a blank symbol). Of the remaining 12, ten asked for the blanket to be put on (horizontal line), while the other two indicated that they did not want any change.

The higher end of the temperature range showed that ten horses indicated that they wanted the blanket to be taken off using the vertical line. The remaining 12 did not have blankets on and chose ‘no change’.

Conditioning-based

The 22 horses used responded well to learning, it was discovered. The 23rd horse did not undergo testing as it had to be put down humanely shortly after training was completed.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936)
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936)
Public Domain
“When horses realised that they were able to communicate with the trainers, i.e. to signal their wishes regarding blanketing, many became very eager in the training or testing situation,” comment researchers.

"Some even tried to attract the attention of the trainers prior to the test situation, by vocalizing and running towards the trainers, and follow their movements. On a number of such occasions, the horses were taken out and allowed to make a choice before its regular turn, and signalled that they wanted the blanket to be removed. It turned out that the horses were sweaty underneath the blanket," they add.

Some might liken the reward-based conditioning idea with Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment. Apart from the fact that these horses are alive and kicking, so to speak, how does the idea differ?

“The dogs were a classical conditioning experiment, and ours is not very different to that. We often use this to explain the theory behind our study. But our experiment takes Pavlov’s one further, making the horses aware of what the symbols mean and asking them to choose,” remarks the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research’s (NIBIO) Grete Jørgensen.

“Knowledge gaps”       

The horse study is one of several that have been performed using live animals. One found that pigeons could distinguish real words from ones that were poppycock.

Another successful one used 308 four-letter words to see if baboons tell if some of these were just examples of monkeying around.

A pigeon
A pigeon
ikon/PixabayPublic Domain
Ms Jørgensen says that she and her colleagues are now choosing to take their horse study further.

“We’re continuing our collaboration with Swedish researchers to find out whether horses want their blankets on or off following strenuous exercise.”

“There are some other knowledge gaps when it comes to preferences and different weather and physical conditions. It’s a question many horse owners have highlighted because they don’t know what to do in these cases,” she concludes.

Internationally innovative

Results of the Scandinavian researchers’ study have spread worldwide. Dr Cecilie M. Mejdell at Oslo’s Norwegian Veterinary Institute tells Norway daily Aftenposten that journalists in countries such as the US, Japan, and Australia have been calling her or sending emails.

A Norwegian Dølehest eating grass
A Norwegian Dølehest eating grass
HaXXa/Wikimedia Commons
“This is a really interesting and innovative study that has conceived a very novel way of getting at what is going on in the mind of the horse," Karen McComb, professor of animal behaviour and cognition at the University of Sussex in Britain, tells BBC News.

The horse study involves ten different breeds, both cold and warm-blooded:

  • Norwegian trotter (7)
  • Norwegian dølehest (3)
  • Fjord horse (2)
  • Icelandic horse (1)
  • Danish, German, or Swedish warmblood riding horses (6)
  • Arabian, or Arabian crossbreds (3)
  • Thoroughbred (1)

18 were geldings, and five were mares. They were between three and 16 years of age. All were kept as riding horses for leisure activities, dressage, or show jumping. Some of them were also used as carriage horses.

Scientists’ inquiry is published in the Elsevier Journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.             




Published on Friday, 30th September, 2016 at 13:59 under the news category, by Michael Sandelson and Sarah Bostock   .
Last updated on 30th September 2016 at 17:23.

This post has the following tags: horses, study, communication, animals, science, scientists, researchers, paywall.





  
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