Do you speak in “baby talk” to your horse? You know what we mean: that high-pitched voice coupled with repetitive words like, “Who’s a good boy? Are you a good boy? What a good boy!” … all the while smiling and perhaps petting the horse, too?
If your trainer or riding friends think you’re crazy, tell them that a new study proves that this “baby talk” ‒ or to use the clinical phrase “pet-directed speech” or PDS ‒ works on primates, dogs and according to the first research effort of its kind, on horses as well.
For one thing, this particular change in the human voice has been shown to “catch and hold” the attention of primates and dogs. And there have been loads of studies examining how horses are sensitive to human emotion, so it makes sense, doesn’t it?
If you’re still skeptical, you’re not alone. As part of the study there was a survey of 845 riders and horse owners on social media which found approximately 93% talked to their horses using PDS on a regular basis, yet only 44% thought the animals were reacting to it. Other respondents simply weren’t sure or just plain doubted that the speech had any impact.
The ethologists involved in the study decided to test the impact of PDS on horses by way of two different tasks. The first was a grooming task using 20 horses that consisted of the experimenter scratching the horse with their hand. The horses involved “carried out significantly more mutual grooming gestures toward the experimenter, looked at the person more, and moved less when spoken to with PDS than with adult-directed speech (ADS).”
The second task involved one set of 10 horses, during which the experimenter pointed at the location of a reward – a bucket of carrots or grain, for example. The horses who were spoken to using PDS found the treat “significantly more often than chance” while another 10 horses given the same task, but spoken to using ADS, did not find the treat as often.
According to the authors of the paper, “These results thus indicate that horses, like certain non-human primates and dogs, are sensitive to PDS. PDS could thus foster communication between people and horses during everyday interactions.”
Next time your riding bestie rolls their eyes when you baby-talk to your horse, you have scientific proof that it works!