Scientists Taught 23 Horses to Communicate Using Symbols



Even Viking horses need a cover to stay warm in the Nordic winter, like this Icelandic horse that is wearing a knitted woolen “sweater”. (Photo:

It should not come as a surprise that horses are intelligent animals, but that they can be taught to communicate with people by the use of symbols, is sensational.

Horses can learn to use symbols to tell whether they are cold or not, and if they want to wear a horse blanket, the Norwegian research portal writes.

In a study just published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Norwegian scientists taught 23 horses to use the muzzle to point at signs with three different symbols:


(Illustration: Cecilie Marie Medell, and more.)

A sign with a black horizontal line on a white background meaning “rug on”.

A sign with a vertical black line on a white background meaning “rug off”.

A blank white sign meaning no change (keep the rug or remain without).

When the horses pointed at a sign, they were rewarded. Depending on the symbol the animals had chosen, the blanket was put on or removed.

Cold Motivation

After about only two weeks of training, the horses had learned to point at the symbols and were associating them with the blanket.

Then the researchers tested whether the animals understood the meaning of the symbols and trained them to point at the signs in different weather conditions:

On hot days, the horses chose the sign with the vertical line showing that they wanted to remove the rug. Those who did not wear a rug, chose to remain without.

On wet, stormy and cold days, ten out of twelve horses not wearing a rug pointed at the sign with the horizontal line showing that they would like to wear one. Horses that already were wearing a blanket chose to keep it on.

The animals understood what consequences the choice of symbol would be, the researchers concluded.

Smart Choice

Previous research studies have shown that horses can be taught to show what they prefer in different situations.

Danish researchers at the Aarhus University Department of Animal Science has shown that horses can learn to press a disc with the muzzle to get access to different levels of social contact with other horses.

In this video, you can see how one of the horses chooses one of the symbols telling it wants to wear a cover. (Video: Cecilie M. Mejdell, Turid Buvikemail, Grete H.M. Jørgensen and Knut E. Bøe)

The most surprising in the Norwegian study is that the horses chose to wear a rug, says Associate professor Janne Winther Christensen at Aarhus University Department of Animal Science to

She believed that horses preferred not to wear a blanket:

– Horses often get blisters from wearing rugs. If it rains or if they roll, the rug get wet and heavy. We see some injuries due to covers that are not frequently changed. In fact, we thought that horses rather would not wear them.

ThorNews understands the Norwegian horses perfectly: In the choice between not wearing a warm blanket in the Norwegian winter with icy cold winds from Siberia or the risk of getting some blisters, the intelligent animals chose to stay warm.



Text modified by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews


Categories: Nature, Quirky

2 replies


  1. Scientists Taught 23 Horses to Communicate Using Symbols | ΕfiSoul63

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