Study Tracks Horses' Ability to Follow Human Pointing Gestures

Socialized horses are able to understand most kinds of human pointing gestures, although they respond more readily to some variations of pointing as opposed to others, according to a new study carried out by Hungarian researchers in Godollo.

In this novel experiment published in February's Animal Cognition, 20 domestic riding horses and ponies were repeatedly offered apple slices hidden in one of two buckets, said Katalin Maros, senior lecturer and PhD candidate at Szent István University, and primary author of the study. The horses were significantly more likely to find the treats when a human pointed to the correct bucket than in control trials in which the human stood still, she said. This was true whether the researcher pointed from a distance of 10 cm or 80 cm (4 inches or 31.5 inches).




A horse in the study follows a pointing gesture.

However, the animals were less likely to find the apples if the human was pointing from 80 cm and then stopped pointing before the horse was released to make its choice. Although dogs and cats generally do well with this exercise, horses do not really appear to understand this "momentary-distance" kind of pointing, Maros said. Even so, as a whole the horses were more successful in the first half compared to the second half of this of this same test, she said.

"It might have been more tiring for them because they have to concentrate more for that test, or they may have been frustrated," she said. She noted that some horses would act aggressive if they chose the wrong bucket and did not get the treat.

The horses were most successful finding the apples when the researcher sat on her heels close to the buckets, stared at the correct bucket, and continued to point until the horse made a choice. With this protocol they found the treat 74% of the time, and half of the horses were right every time or wrong only once. They were successful 67% of the time when the researcher pointed only momentarily from 10 cm away. When the researcher stood at a distance of 80 cm and maintained the point, the horses chose correctly 61% of the time. In controls, where the researcher was present near the buckets but did not point, the horses chose randomly, with a success rate of only 46%.

"The pointing types with a strong visual effect are more easily understood by horses," Maros said, attributing this possibly to the fact that horses communicate with each other via subtle visual cues. "Well-socialized horses seem to understand them without any prior training."

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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