We know that horses can pick up subtle human cues and body language. But recent study results suggest that ability is a skill that’s actually shaped by the horse’s prior training and experiences with humans.

In a novel experiment, researchers from the University of Florida and Oregon State University tested the influence of horse training methods on horses’ ability to follow human pointing gestures. They found that those trained with lots of ground work and body communication (specifically, the Parelli method) learned to recognize finger pointing faster than horses trained using traditional methods.

“The horse industry has very different training methods available, and we really wanted to compare a method that uses human body language to one that does not, in its effect on the animal’s ability to detect human gestures,” said Nicole R. Dorey, PhD, of the University of Florida.

Dorey’s team worked with two groups of horses with two different training backgrounds. Half the horses were trained by official Parelli trainers using significant ground work that relies on the horse’s recognition of cues coming from human body language, such as hand and head movements. The other half were trained using traditional methods—basic pressure/release negative reinforcement rapidly leading to mounted work under saddle and bit, where the horse does not see the human as much.

Dorey’s team taught 20 horses to recognize that treats would be placed in one of two buckets near a handler in a small testing area