In a study done in Norway researchers taught 23 horses to communicate to their trainers if they wanted blankets (rugs) ‘put on’, ‘taken off’ or ‘unchanged’. The horses were taught 3 different symbols to express their choice. If they chose ‘unchanged’ they kept their blankets on if they wore one and didn’t get one on if they were already without blanket.
Let the horse speak for himself
I like the idea of asking a horse their opinion in training, which is why I like to use positive reinforcement. I think it is brilliant to conduct a study in which the horse is taught to communicate their opinion about blankets.
All the horses were solely trained with positive reinforcement. They had to learn the meaning of three symbols and their consequences. Touching a white painted board with a black horizontal stripe meant ‘put blanket on’, a blank white board meant ‘no change’ and a white board with a black vertical bar on it meant ‘take blanket off’.
They were trained for two or three sessions per day, 5–7 days a week. Each session lasted about 5 minutes. The horses varied in age between 3 and 16 years. Some horses were cold-bloods, other were warm-blood horses. The speed of learning varied between the horses however all 23 horses learned to distinguished the symbols within 14 days of training.
Conclusion of the study
“Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold. This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols. The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses.”
Find the study here.
I think it is really interesting to see what happens if we give our horses a choice and a clear way to communicate their choice to us. It prevents us from making an anthropomorphic choice for them, like ‘It is a cold, sunny day, so I put this nice warm blanket on my horse’ or making guesses about their wishes.
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