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

Anim Cogn. 2016 Sep;19(5):899-909. doi: 10.1007/s10071-016-0987-0. Epub 2016 Apr 20.


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.

Keywords: Domestic horse; Human–animal communication; Intentional communication; Referential communication; Referential gesture.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Communication*
  • Animals
  • Attention
  • Horses*
  • Humans
  • Motivation
  • Touch Perception
  • Visual Perception