If you’ve ever played a game of hide-and-seek with a carrot with your horse, chances are you’ve suspected that the equine in question knew if you were telling the truth or not. Do our horses trust us to know such things? Or are such thoughts just anthropomorphizing on the part of horse-loving humans? Not so fast, naysayers ‒ or should we say neighsayers?
A study published in August 2021 in Scientific Reports entitled “Horses with sustained attention follow the pointing of a human who knows where food is hidden” says differently. Indeed, the results are in the title.
While it’s been well-documented that dogs understand human gestures such as pointing as a means of communication, other domesticated animals have not been studied as frequently. A group of researchers set out to change that.
In the abstract of the study, the researchers wrote about their investigation to explore if horses, like their canine counterparts, could follow a human “informant” who points to where carrots were hidden in a bucket. The scientists, who hail from France and Japan, observed that horses were able to discern if the informant actually was paying attention to where the carrot was hidden.
The experiment was simple. The horses were allowed to watch as one person pretended to put a carrot in one of two buckets. The buckets were blocked from the animal’s line of sight. The horses could see that there were two other people watching where the person put the carrot. One of these people was facing the bucket; the other faced away from the bucket. To ensure scent wasn’t a factor, both buckets actually contained carrots. The person who pretended to put the carrots inside a bucket was removed from the area. The two other people each pointed to one of the buckets. Then the horse was given free rein to decide which bucket the carrot was in.
“The horses in this study followed the pointing of an informant who had the knowledge of the food-hiding place more than the other informant who didn’t have the knowledge of the food hiding place,” Monamie Ringhofer, PhD, senior lecturer of the Department of Animal Sciences at Teikyo University of Science, told The Horse. “So, this shows that horses perceive the pointing gesture as a communicative cue—in other words, it transfers some information — and not as a command.”
The researchers looked at data from 38 horses during the test trial, finding that 25 out of the 38 horses made the correct choice, which is to choose the human who knew where the carrot was.
Of course, some horses pay attention to what’s going on around them more than others. And the study noted that “attention loss had a significantly negative effect on the horses’ performance” whereas the horses who paid attention made correct choices by cognitive selection, not by guessing.
What does this prove? It demonstrates that horses who focus on their environment and what the people around them are doing are able to evaluate and make judgments on who knows what.
“They made correct decisions in the object-choice task (i.e. they chose to follow the pointing of a reliable informant) based on the attentional state of the informants during a previous food-hiding event,” the study’s author writes.
This research complements other studies that demonstrate that horses can “follow the pointing of a reliable human (i.e. the knower, who had the correct information regarding the location of the hidden food) while ignoring the pointing of an unreliable human (i.e. the guesser, who did not have the correct information regarding the location of the hidden food) to find the hidden food in the object-choice task.”
The evidence also concludes something we’ve long suspected, that horses process and retain the information we give them. As the study’s authors explain, the horses could evaluate the attention levels of the two people during the carrot-hiding event without directly observing where the food was hidden and could follow the pointing of the person who had seen where the carrot was hidden.
And if you think this is just a matter of practice, think again. The horses got one shot at following the finger-pointing person, so there were no do-overs. This proved to the researchers that horses have a “high sensitivity” to the attentional state of people and are able to process the situation immediately.
So when you’re playing hide-the-carrot with your horse, he’s onto you.