Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans.

Horses can use gestures to tell humans what they want

Rachele Malavasi and Ludwig Huber
Animal Cognition vol 19 no 5, September 2016 pp 899-909

Referential communication means using gestures of a type to indicate to another animal what role it should play in helping the sender to achieve something, for example, by indicating an object to let the recipient know what the sender wants. If the recipient gets the message, both parties look at the object in question. This experiment studied the ability of horses to tell humans about an object the horse wanted, which was a bucket containing food that the horse could not reach.

The experimenter changed their position in four ways, facing the horse, back to the horse, walking away, and facing the horse with other human helpers nearby. These indicated differences in the attention of the experimenter. Horses showed the highest rate of gaze alternation when they and the experimenters were facing one another. When the experimenter walked away, or had their back to the horse, gaze alternation was lessened, and the horses made fewer pointing and head gestures like nods and shakes. The horses also walked to and touched the experimenter when visual communication failed.

This study shows that horses can use referential gestures to gain a human’s attention to obtain a resource that the horse cannot reach Dogs are able to do this, but this study is the first to show that horses have such capabilities.