If you’re planning to give them to your horse, he knows. And if you’re not planning to, he also knows. He even knows when you’re planning to give him the carrots but, because of your own lack of grace or cleverness, you can’t seem to get them to him.
It’s evidence that, whether it involves carrots or something else, horses understand our goals—even when we fail to reach them, according to a study by French behavior scientists.
“When you’re with your horse, don’t lie to yourself, and don’t lie to him, because he knows what you’re planning to do,” said Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours, France.
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Lansade and her fellow researchers, including PhD student Miléna Trösch, studied 21 privately owned riding horses as they observed an unfamiliar human armed with carrot slices in three scenarios. In all three cases, a plastic window separated the horses from the human.
Sometimes, the humans held the carrots but had no intention of giving them to the horse, moving them out of reach when the horse tried to get them. Other times, they wanted to give them but showed difficulty getting their hands past a barrier to get the carrots to the horse. And in some cases, they wanted to give the carrots but kept dropping them.
The horses showed clear behavioral differences when the handlers intended to give the carrots and when they didn’t, Lansade said. Specifically, when the humans “wanted” to give the carrot but couldn’t, the horses seemed to try to communicate with the humans, touching the plastic window, she said. But when the humans didn’t want to give the horses the carrots, the horses spent significantly less time facing the human before looking away.
“Simply put, they gave up really quickly when they realized we, the humans, weren’t planning to give them the reward,” she said.
While some people might find it obvious that horses can understand human intentions, it’s not something even experts have agreed on prior to this study, said Lansade. “There’s a difference between thinking that a horse is capable of something and actually proving that he is capable of it in a scientific protocol that clears any doubt,” she explained.
The ways in which horses show their intelligence can vary considerably, Lansade added. They can sometimes surprise us with impressive cognitive abilities, such as recognizing people in a video, even if they haven’t seen those people in months, or figuring out how to open doors, latches, and even locks. Other times, they can be surprisingly unable to perform tasks that seem relatively simple, such as expecting objects to stay where they are or realizing their bodies are too big to hide behind a single tree.
“Personally, given the complex paradigm in our study, I wouldn’t have sworn that the horses would perceive the difference (in the handlers’ intentions),” Lansade said.
In the end, horses do understand intentions—perhaps even better than we do, she added. “Horses are able to perceive our goals, but I can’t say the opposite is necessarily true,” said Lansade. “Being able to read the goals of another species isn’t all that obvious.”