The latest animal study shows that horses communicate with their eyes and ears.
A new study shows that, when horses are turned in either direction, other horses will use the turned direction as cues on where to go.
24 horses were used in a study that had a life-size picture of a horse head placed between two buckets of feed. With each of the horses, researchers 1) covered the horse’s eyes and ears or 2) placed the horse photo to point in either the left direction or right.
Whenever the horse’s eyes and ears were covered in the picture, the horse chose a random bucket of feed (either the left bucket or the right bucket). When the photo horse’s eyes and ears were uncovered, and the picture was tilted in either direction, the horses followed the direction in which the picture was tilted.
While the study suggests that horses do indeed interpret directional cues based on the eyes and ears of other horses, it also shows that horses do not perceive directions and cues as accurately as humans can. After all, if a person stands in front of two boxes that allow you to draw a winning lottery ticket, for example, the direction of the individual will not sway a human, either way. Even if the individual is standing in front of the two boxes turned to the left or the right, humans will choose the box on either side that they think may have the winning lottery ticket. In other words, humans have discrimination abilities that allow them to make a genuine choice.
It is not necessarily the case that horses can perceive pointers accurately. In the study, notice that the horses were turned in either direction. First, the horse in the photograph was not a horse standing in front of the horses but rather, a photograph. It seems to be the case that the horses themselves could not “recognize” (for lack of a better term) whether the horse was a photograph or a genuine animal. Would these horses “take cues” from a bowling ball or a basketball if it were tilted in a certain direction?
Since the horse standing in front of the 24 horses was a photo and not a genuine animal, the horses could not distinguish the photo from a live animal and went to the bucket of feed in which the photo was pointing. In the actions of the horses involved, it seems as though they followed the direction the “horse” photo pointed to, assuming that the horse was a genuine animal.
What then, can we draw from the study? Well, first, horses cannot distinguish between a photo of a horse’s head and a real horse – which ranks low when compared to most mature humans. Next, the horses have a sense of direction, as seen by their walking direction and the angle of the photograph.
In the end, horses do communicate via their eyes and ears, but a greater look at video footage between horses at random times may provide a better look into how horses communicate. Can horses communicate directions on their own without props or arrow signs? We do not know the answers to these questions, and the study provides only half the picture.
You can find this horses study in the Current Biology journal.