According to the results of a study by French and Japanese behaviorists, horses can tell whether we’ve been paying attention and then decide whether to trust the information we give them. Specifically, they’re more likely to choose the bucket we point to if they first saw us watch the carrot go into the bucket, said Monamie Ringhofer, PhD, senior lecturer of the Department of Animal Sciences at Teikyo University of Science, previously associated with the Kyoto University Institute of Advanced Studies, both in Japan.
Until now, researchers had only observed this “sophisticated skill” in dogs and humans, Ringhofer said.
“The horses in this study followed the pointing of an informant who had the knowledge of the food-hiding place more than the other informant who didn’t have the knowledge of the food hiding place,” Ringhofer said. “So this shows that horses perceive the pointing gesture as a communicative cue—in other words, it transfers some information—and not as a command.”
Pointing: Not a Command, But Information-Sharing
But scientists had not considered whether horses follow pointing cues blindly or if they consider whether the human knows the carrot’s location, Ringhofer said. In an earlier study she showed that horses could tell when people knew where food was hidden—based on whether the person had seen it being hidden.
So Ringhofer teamed up with French researchers Léa Lansade, PhD, and Milena Trösch, PhD, along with her own colleague Shinya Yamamoto, PhD, to test horses in an experiment originally designed for dogs. The animals watched as one person pretended to place food in one of two containers, which were blocked from the animals’ view. (Although the animal didn’t know it, both containers had food in them, so smell wouldn’t influence container choice.) They could also see a second and third person nearby: One person faced the food-hider, and the other faced away.
Then, the food-hider left the scene, and the two other people each pointed to one of the two containers. The barrier was removed from in front of the containers, and the animal was released to make a choice.
In previous research, dogs were much more likely to choose the container indicated by the person that had been seen the food being hidden, Ringhofer said.
In this new study the scientists found that horses are likely to make those same decisions. They seemed to “trust” the pointing gesture when it appeared the person had seen where the carrot had dropped, said Ringhofer
Horses Know—But Only If They Were Paying Attention
Despite these general results, on a more individual scale it appeared the horse’s attention level played a major role, Ringhofer said. Horses that were more focused on what was happening—watching the scene in front of them between the two people with the carrot—were far more likely to make the connection between the pointing gesture and the possibility that the person had seen where the carrot went.
“These results indicate that horses with sustained attention (low level of attention loss) can distinguish a person who knows the food-hiding place and a person who doesn’t,” Ringhofer told The Horse.
Critically, that also means the horses that didn’t make the connection between the pointing and the person’s knowledge are not necessarily less intelligent, she explained. Rather, it might mean they were less motivated to pay attention.
Horses Are Sensitive and Sometimes Need More Motivation
Combined, the findings suggest that, when they’re paying attention, horses notice where we’re looking and what we focus on, Ringhofer said. That implies they can generally conclude whether we would—in theory—know something.
On a practical level, that means we should recognize the extent to which horses are watching us and gathering information, she said.
“People should keep in mind and be careful that horses are quite sensitive to our attentional state and gestures when they interact with horses,” said Ringhofer.
It also means we should consider our horse’s motivation and attention levels more when working with them, she added.
“We have to think about horses’ motivation toward something we teach or train and judge their abilities for these things not only by their outcome (performance) but also by their motivation level,” Ringhofer said. “There’s a possibility that when a horse has difficulty learning something, it might be better to think about increasing the horse’s motivation toward what we teach, in some cases.”
The study, “Horses with sustained attention follow the pointing of a human who knows where food is hidden,” was published by Science Reports on Aug. 10, 2021.