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Evidence of heterospecific referential communication from domestic horses (Equus caballus) to humans

By R. Malavasi, L. Huber

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Referential communication occurs when a sender elaborates its gestures to direct the attention of a recipient to its role in pursuit of the desired goal, e.g. by pointing or showing an object, thereby informing the recipient what it wants. If the gesture is successful, the sender and the recipient focus their attention simultaneously on a third entity, the target. Here we investigated the ability of domestic horses (Equus caballus) to communicate referentially with a human observer about the location of a desired target, a bucket of food out of reach. In order to test six operational criteria of referential communication, we manipulated the recipient's (experimenter) attentional state in four experimental conditions: frontally oriented, backward oriented, walking away from the arena and frontally oriented with other helpers present in the arena. The rate of gaze alternation was higher in the frontally oriented condition than in all the others. The horses appeared to use both indicative (pointing) and non-indicative (nods and shakes) head gestures in the relevant test conditions. Horses also elaborated their communication by switching from a visual to a tactile signal and demonstrated perseverance in their communication. The results of the tests revealed that horses used referential gestures to manipulate the attention of a human recipient so to obtain an unreachable resource. These are the first such findings in an ungulate species.

Publication Title Animal Cognition
Volume 19
Issue 5
Pages 899-909
ISBN/ISSN 1435-9448
Language English
Author Address Study Center for Ethical Equitation, Equiluna A.S.D., MS,
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal communication
  3. Animals
  4. Behavioral research
  5. Horses
  6. Mammals
  7. Movement
  8. Relationships
  9. Sport animals
  10. ungulates
  11. vertebrates
  12. Zoology