Horses Comprehend Human Gestures

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Written By Animalcognition

For many people, horses are rarely the first animal they think of when it comes to intelligence. Their capacity to learn is something that has been particularly passed over, likely because much of the behavior they learn from humans has long been expected. For example, we tend to see a horse that is able to be ridden as normal, forgetting just how many complex cues the animal must learn in order to perform basic riding tasks. Despite this general attitude, more and more research is being conducted that puts a spotlight on the cognitive abilities of equines.

In a paper1 published on February 28th, 2015, researchers Paola Lovrovich, Claudio Sighieri, and Paolo Baragli shared findings that show horses can understand human gestures. In their study, they tested horses by hiding carrots beneath buckets, then noting how quickly the horses uncovered the carrots both with and without observing the gestures of humans.

Highlights from the paper:
  • Horses remember the location of food hidden by the experimenter after a delay.

  • They understand the communicative meaning of a human positioned close to the target.

  • The same horses are capable of changing their decision-making strategy.

  • They are able to shift from accuracy inferred from human given cues to speed.

  • Horses can use human cues or not depending on time, cost, experience and reward.


The paper’s abstract:

To date, horses have seemed capable of using human local enhancement cues only when the experimenter remains close to the reward, since they fail to understand the communicative meaning of the human as momentary local enhancement cue (when the human is not present at the moment of the animal’s choice). This study was designed to analyse the ability of horses to understand, remember and use human-given cues in a delayed (10 s) three-choice task.

Twelve horses (experimental group) had to find a piece of carrot hidden under one of three overturned buckets after seeing the experimenter hide it. The results were then compared with those of a control group (twelve horses) that had to find the carrot using only the sense of smell or random attempts. At the beginning, the experimental horses made more correct choices at the first attempt, although they took more time to find the carrot. Later the same horses were less accurate but found the carrot in less time.

This suggests that the value of the proximal momentary local enhancement cues became less critical. It seemed, in fact, that the experimental and control group had aligned their behaviour as the trials proceeded. Despite this similarity, in the second half of the trials, the experimental group tended to first approach the bucket where they had found the carrot in the immediately preceding trial.

Our findings indicate that horses are capable of remembering the location of food hidden by the experimenter after a delay, by using the human positioned close to the target as valuable information. The same horses are also capable of changing their decision-making strategy by shifting from the accuracy inferred from human given cues to speed. Therefore, horses are able to decide whether or not to use human given-cues, depending on a speed-accuracy trade-off.

This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of


1 – Paola Lovrovich, Claudio Sighieri, Paolo Baragli
Following human-given cues or not? Horses (Equus caballus) get smarter and change strategy in a delayed three choice task
Applied Animal Behaviour Science