Mejdell, C. M., Buvik, T., Jørgensen, G. H. M. et al. 2016. Horses can learn to use symbols to communicate their preferences. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 184, 66-73.
This paper describes a method in which horses learn to communicate by touching different neutral visual symbols, in order to tell the handler whether they want to have a blanket on or not. Horses were trained for 10–15min per day, following a training program comprising ten steps in a strategic order. Reward based operant conditioning was used to teach horses to approach and touch a board, and to understand the meaning of three different symbols. Heat and cold challenges were performed to help learning and to check level of understanding. At certain stages, a learning criterion of correct responses for 8–14 successive trials had to be achieved before proceeding. After introducing the free choice situation, on average at training day 11, the horse could choose between a “no change” symbol and the symbol for either “blanket on” or “blanket off” depending on whether the horse already wore a blanket or not. A cut off point for performance or non-performance was set to day 14, and 23/23 horses successfully learned the task within this limit. Horses of warm-blood type needed fewer training days to reach criterion than cold-bloods (P<0.05). Horses were then tested under differing weather conditions. Results show that choices made, i.e. the symbol touched, was not random but dependent on weather. Horses chose to stay without a blanket in nice weather, and they chose to have a blanket on when the weather was wet, windy and cold (χ2=36.67, P<0.005). This indicates that horses both had an understanding of the consequence of their choice on own thermal comfort, and that they successfully had learned to communicate their preference by using the symbols. The method represents a novel tool for studying preferences in horses.