For thousands of years horses have helped humans out in countless ways, carrying us across vast distances and even serving in our militaries. Now, a new study has revealed that they are capable of asking us to return the favor every once in a while, suggesting that they may possess a level of social intelligence similar to that of dogs.
Like dogs, horses have been domesticated and bred by humans, leading to the development of certain personality traits. And while canines are much more overt in their willingness to communicate with people, the new research, which appears in the journal Animal Cognition, sheds new light on just how much our equine companions are able to intuit.
The scientists placed food in covered buckets that the horses couldn’t open with their hooves, before their caretakers then entered the stable. At this point, the animals began gesticulating to their human counterparts, nudging them and staring at them until they opened the buckets and gave them the hidden food.
Next, the team wanted to figure out if horses are capable of understanding how much people know. They therefore repeated the experiment, ensuring that on some occasions the caretakers were present when the food was hidden, so that the horses knew that they had seen it, while on other occasions they arrived after the food had been concealed, so that the horses would assume they were unaware of its presence.
The animals showed a surprising level of behavioral flexibility, significantly increasing the intensity and duration of their gesticulating when they thought their caretakers were ignorant to the food. On the other hand, when they had seen their caretakers witnessing the food being covered, they reduced their signaling.
“These results suggest that horses alter their communicative behavior towards humans in accordance with humans’ knowledge state,” write the study authors, meaning the animals are capable of discerning what is going on in the minds of those around them.
Recent studies have revealed that other domestic animals – especially dogs – are incredibly adept at communicating with people, and this finding in horses adds yet more weight to the idea that domestication leads to the development of highly impressive social skills.