Horse Talk: The Search for Meaning in Equine Communication

Horse owners know that a low-pitched nicker indicates friendly recognition, and an anxious call is a sign of stress. Now researchers are looking for a scientific link between the acoustic properties of equine communications and their possible meanings.

David G. Browning, MS, of the University of Rhode Island's Department of Physics, and Peter M. Scheifle, PhD, MD, from the Animal Science Department of the University of Connecticut, have teamed up to translate those familiar equine vocalizations through a study dubbed the Equine Vocalization Project.

The pair presented a progress report entitled "Horse Whinnies: The Search for Specific Equine Vocal Expression" on their research at the 151st meeting of the Acoustical Society of America on June 9.

"We found that by its acoustic structure--its wide bandwidth and varying frequency--during the vocalization, the whinny has the potential to be a means of expressing emotion," said Browning. "Now the key question is whether a horse does this, and if so under what conditions."

The Equine Vocalization Project is now trying to ascertain whether horses actually use their vocal abilities to express emotion--whether the whinny emitted upon seeing a pasture mate is significantly different acoustically than the whinny emitted upon seeing a strange horse.

The researchers are currently expanding their vocal communication database, and in the future will enlist the help of horse owners to provide input on their experiences with equine vocal communication and provide feedback as the project progresses.

About the Author

Erin Ryder

Erin Ryder is a former news editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. She owns a portly gray gelding named Duncan and dabbles in several equestrian disciplines, with an emphasis on dressage.

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