Can horses distinguish between letters?

If you look around you at the average horse stable, you’ll see all kinds of signs with words. Just think of the name of the stable, the sign ‘exit’ above the door and of course the names of the horses on the boxes. An easy way for us to gain information, but what about the horse? Can they distinguish between certain letters or words? 



Clara-Lynn Schubert and her fellow researchers have been researching visual discrimination. For this they used Garrano horses, an endangered pony breed from the Iberian horse family. The five horses were 13, 8, 5, 4 and 2 years old. They lived in a semi-free space near their natural habitat in Serra d’Arga, in the north of Portugal. The group consisted of a stallion, two adult mares and two offspring. The eldest, a mare, only had one eye. 



The research was done by means of a touchscreen to ensure that the horse would not respond to the physical signals of the people standing around. The horses were first trained to touch black circles that appeared on a touch screen with their noses. They were then tested for their ability to distinguish between an O, B, V, Z, and X, rendered in the Arial font. 


A ‘beep’ sound was played when the letters appeared on the screen. A ‘chime’ was played for the correct answer and a ‘buzzer’ sound for an incorrect answer. If the horse gave the correct answer, with a choice of 3 options, they were rewarded with a piece of carrot that fell into a bowl below the touchscreen. The horses were pre-trained to recognize the X as an incorrect answer. During the study, the horses were free to participate or discontinue the experiment at any time. 



The horses were trained to use the touchscreen with their noses and were able to distinguish between the letters O, B, Z, V and X. This was the case for all horses except the stallion. The letters they had the most difficulty with was the difference between the O and the B, as well as the letters Z, V and X. The horses scored a combined average of 80.4%, which is consistent with previous studies in other animals. 

Source: Horsetalk – 

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