Horses (Equus caballus) use human local enhancement cues and adjust to human attention

Anim Cogn. 2011 Mar;14(2):187-201. doi: 10.1007/s10071-010-0352-7. Epub 2010 Sep 16.


This study evaluates the horse (Equus caballus) use of human local enhancement cues and reaction to human attention when making feeding decisions. The superior performance of dogs in observing human states of attention suggests this ability evolved with domestication. However, some species show an improved ability to read human cues through socialization and training. We observed 60 horses approach a bucket with feed in a three-way object-choice task when confronted with (a) an unfamiliar or (b) a familiar person in 4 different situations: (1) squatting behind the bucket, facing the horse (2) standing behind the bucket, facing the horse (3) standing behind the bucket in a back-turned position, gazing away from the horse and (4) standing a few meters from the bucket in a distant, back-turned position, again gazing away from the horse. Additionally, postures 1 and 2 were tested both with the person looking permanently at the horse and with the person alternating their gaze between the horse and the bucket. When the person remained behind the correct bucket, it was chosen significantly above chance. However, when the test person was turned and distant from the buckets, the horses' performance deteriorated. In the turned person situations, the horses approached a familiar person and walked towards their focus of attention significantly more often than with an unfamiliar person. Additionally, in the squatting and standing person situations, some horses approached the person before approaching the correct bucket. This happened more with a familiar person. We therefore conclude that horses can use humans as a local enhancement cue independently of their body posture or gaze consistency when the persons remain close to the food source and that horses seem to orientate on the attention of familiar more than of unfamiliar persons. We suggest that socialization and training improve the ability of horses to read human cues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention
  • Choice Behavior
  • Cues*
  • Female
  • Horses / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology