Horses Ask Humans for Help With Problems

When our equine friends have a dilemma, they're not above asking us to give them a hand, a new study suggests.

When horses encounter problems they can't solve themselves, they're not above asking their human friends for help.

In a study now published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers from Kobe University say they've observed exactly that phenomenon. What's more, they suggest, the animals seem to be attuned to our awareness level about the problem.

The Kobe scientists arrived at their conclusions by turning to something sure to capture the equines' interest: carrots.

They found that hiding carrots in a bucket that was maddeningly inaccessible to horses prompted the animals to ask for assistance. When human caretakers who were unaware of the hidden food placement came on scene, the horses in the test lingered near them, looking at them and even nudging them, as if to say: "Errm, that bucket over there has some carrots in it! Little help?"

The researchers called the looks and physical touches evidence of signals the horses were sending to their human helpers.

Later, a second experiment was arranged to observe whether the horses would alter their behavior based upon whether or not the caretaker knew about the hidden food. When the caretakers were not aware that food was hidden nearby – had not observed its placement in view of the animals – the horses engaged in more signaling than when the caretaker observed (in sight of the horses) the food being hidden. That, say the researchers, showed that the horses can indeed change their behavior based upon what they think humans know about a situation.

The scientists say these attributes shown by the horses – communicating their needs to humans and altering those communications based on human knowledge states – suggest a high degree of cognitive skill.

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Horses and people have bonded through domestication for thousands of years, which may help explain the results, the researchers say. Other studies, such as a finding from early this year that horses can read our emotional state with just a passing glance, have suggested the animals are well attuned to human body language and emotions, but their direct communications with people are less well studied, the scientists said.

Of course, horses aren't alone in their close emotional and observational ties to people. Dogs, for example, have been shown, with the quickest of looks, to understand human facial expressions such as scowls, and there's reason to believe they may even mimic our feelings and expressions.