Ever wondered whether your horse really wanted to be rugged? Why not just ask?
Researchers did just that, in a study involving 23 horses in Norway.
The results of the research indicated that horses were able to be taught to express a preference – either to have their rug put on, taken off, or no change.
“Horses can learn to understand the meaning of abstract symbols and to use these to communicate with humans,” Cecilie Mejdell told delegates at the recent 10th International Equitation Science Conference in Denmark.
The study, which aimed to teach horses to use symbols to express their preferences regarding rugging, was conducted by Mejdell and her colleagues, Turid Buvik, Grete Jørgensen and Knut Bøe, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Using a reward-based system, professional animal trainers employed a 10-step training program to teach the 23 horses, comprising 13 cold-bloods and 10 warmbloods of various breeds. They were aged 3 to 16.
They were taught to approach and touch a board with their muzzle. The training involved association learning between visual symbols on boards and meaning.
One visual symbol meant “blanket on”, another meant “blanket off”, and a third symbol meant “no change”.
A horse was deemed to have learnt the meaning of different symbols when they expressed meaningful symbol choices when tested 14 times in a row under pre-determined hot or cold environmental conditions. Speed of learning varied between horses, the researchers found.
All horses entered the free choice phase between days 11 and 13, where their responses were not influenced or corrected by the trainers and the horse’s response – their decision regarding rugging – was rewarded.
From this, it was assumed that the horses were expected to understand that their free choice, as expressed by touching a specific symbol, determined the nature of their blanketing, and even to understand the consequence in terms of thermal comfort for the next few hours that followed.
The horses’ preferences were tested under differing weather conditions, including sunshine, wind, rain/snow and temperatures ranging from -15 to +20 degrees Celsius.
Horses were left outdoors for two hours before given the choice to change, or not change, blanket status.
Results revealed that the choices made by the horses were individually consistent and influenced by the prevailing weather conditions.
In general, cold-blooded horses preferred to stay without a blanket more often compared to warmbloods.
The findings suggest that communication by the use of visual symbols, as has been shown in other species, is a promising tool for the study of preferences in horses.