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Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences

C. M. Mejdell, T. Buvik, G. H. M. Jørgensen, K. E. Bøe

THE ability of horses to discriminate between visual cues has been well documented, and various techniques have been used to explore cognitive abilities and preferences of horses. In this study, the authors explored whether the ability of horses to discriminate simple visual symbols could be extended to associations between specific symbols and corresponding outcomes, as well as personal comfort. The aim was to develop a tool to ‘ask’ horses whether or not they preferred to wear a blanket under different weather conditions.

Twenty-three horses received positive reinforcement training for 10 to 15 minutes per day using a training programme made up of 10 steps. The training programme taught the horses how to approach and touch a display board showing symbols depicting various options – ‘blanket on’, ‘blanket off’ and ‘no change’. It also ensured that horses were able to associate blanket status with their own thermal comfort using heat and cold challenges. By repeated choice testing, and retesting under various conditions, the level of understanding by the horse of the consequences of its choice on its own thermal comfort was enhanced.

All 23 horses successfully learned the task within 14 …

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