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According to a team of biologists at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, horses show signs of abstract thought, and are able to use abstract symbols to convey certain desires, such as whether or not they want a blanket put on them. The researchers recorded their findings in a paper published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

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For many years, scientists and horse experts have been coming to the realization that horses have immense intelligence. They can be trained to perform various tasks and are able to communicate with humans in many ways, such as stomping their feet, biting or knocking holes in stall walls, and making various other gestures.

Such insights have created controversy as well. For instance, 100 years ago in Germany, a famous horse known as “Clever Hans” was thought to know the basics of simple arithmetic and watched the calendar. At public appearances, the horse provided correct answers to questions by tapping a hoof the right number of times. Skeptics believed that the horse wasn’t actually thinking, but merely reading the secret signs in order to appease his master.

Norwegian researchers thought horses might be more intelligent than originally assumed, however, so they created three signs for horses to review: one was pure white, one had a black horizontal bar on a white background, and one had a black vertical bar on a white background. Next, the researchers spent two weeks training riding horses to read the signs, then to take advantage of them to communicate with their human counterparts whether or not they wanted a blanket placed on their back, to have one removed, or for things to stay just as they were.

After a mere 11 days, the researchers found that most of the horses had succeeded at the training, and were actively using the signs to convey their desire. And at the two-week mark, all of the horses were reported to be completely on board, deliberately using the signs to express their needs. The researchers also noted that the horses’ wishes were not random, as they conveyed their desire for a blanket when it was cold, for example, and requested to have it taken off on warm days when they were sweating.

The researchers also reported that the horses enjoyed being able to communicate with their trainers so much so that, one of them, for instance, begin playing with them by forcing them to alternately remove and return the covers before they noticed her.

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The researchers concluded that the horses were, in addition to being able to read the symbols, capable of understanding the connection between them and real world consequences, which demonstrates a form of higher learning.

“I think our study adds to the knowledge on horse cognition – about what horses are able to learn and how they think,” explained lead researcher of the study, Cecilie Mejdell, from the Norwegian Veterinary Institute. “Horses are often considered to be not very intelligent but this shows that using the right methods they can actually communicate and express their opinions and they can take choices that seem sensible to us even.”

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