A group of researchers in Norway undertook a project whose aim “was to teach horses to use symbols to express their preferences regarding blanketing.” Professional animal trainers carried out a ten step-training program in which horses 23 horses (13 were cold-blooded horses and ten warmbloods), aged 3-16 years, were trained for 10-15 minutes 5-7 days/week.
Using a reward-based conditioning method, horses were taught to approach and touch a board with their muzzle. They were then taught to differentiate between boards with different symbols, one meaning “blanket on” and one meaning “blanket off”. The next step was for the horse, when confronted with the two options, to touch the appropriate symbol (e.g., “blanket off” when wearing a blanket), which was encouraged and rewarded. Later in the training, a third symbol that meant “no change” was introduced. Before the horses were then allowed to choose freely, each horse had to make “meaningful” choices in 14 repetitions, including challenges with heat and cold.
Once the horse advanced to the point of being able to make his own choice (“free choice”), no correction or influence was allowed by the trainers or handlers, and any choice the horse made was rewarded. Eventually, the horse would understand that his free choices would determine the action of the handler regarding blanketing and even understand the consequence of his choice on his own comfort over a period of hours. The horses’ preferences were tested under a variety of weather conditions and temperatures, and the horses were then left outdoors for two hours before being given the choice to change, or not to change, their blanket status.
The researchers concluded the choices made by horses were individually consistent but influenced by weather conditions. In general, cold-blooded horses more often preferred to stay without a blanket compared to warmbloods. The researchers felt that communication through the use of visual symbols could be a tool for the study of preferences in horses.
Scientific Article: Cecilie M. Mejdell, Turid Buvik, Grete J.M.Jergensen, E. Bee. “Communication through symbol use: a novel method to study horse preferences for blanketing.” Conference Proceeds 10 Int’l Equitation Science Conference, June 2014, p. 33.