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A Norwegian study recently proved that horses can quickly learn to read simple symbols and use them to communicate whether or not they wish to wear a blanket. The study was conducted with twenty-two riding horses of various breeds over a period of time during which weather temperatures varied from pleasant, to cold, to cold and rainy. After completion of the training process, each horse chose accurately and appropriately according to its individual desires over a test period of nearly a year.

Four days within the period were shown on a chart as examples. On pleasant days in May and August, all horses chose not to wear blankets. On a cold, drizzly day in April, fifteen out of twenty-two horses chose to wear blankets. On a cold, very rainy day in September, twenty of the twenty-two horses chose the blankets. Of the two un-blanketed horses that day, both chose blankets on a still colder, sleeting day.

To begin the study, three white boards were used to teach the horses to choose their preference. One had a horizontal bar in the middle (meaning, “put blanket on”), one had a vertical bar in the middle (meaning “take blanket off”), and one board was blank (meaning “no change”). The boards were introduced, one at a time, to each horse. When they touched the single board with their nose, they were rewarded with a piece of carrot, and the appropriate action was performed by the handler. It took just two weeks for the horses to learn the meaning of each symbol.

Then all three boards were mounted on a paddock fence, their positions continuously shuffled. Each horse would be brought to the paddock on a warm day covered with blankets and sweating. When they chose the appropriate symbol, they were rewarded and the blanket was removed. Each horse had to make the correct choice twelve times before moving on to the next step—a cold and uncomfortable day when they were brought outside without a blanket and presented with their choices. Finally, when they were brought out suitably dressed for whatever the weather—un-blanketed on a pleasant day or blanketed on a miserable day—they would receive the carrot if they chose the blank board, but no reward for any other choice.

A few horses were too smart, and tried to game the system to get more carrots. A couple tried nibbling on the boards, but eventually learned that this strategy didn’t produce more treats. Another horse apparently loved the attention of having blankets put on and off, so he kept choosing the all white board just to get changed! After a while he learned that changes had lasting consequences, like becoming overly hot or uncomfortably cold.

For a short video and more detail, click to see Karin Brulliard’s article in the Washington Post.

Posted September 24, 2016

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