While this is probably old news to anyone who spends time around horses, a study published in late March 2011 in the online journal PLoS One shows that horses and other domesticated animals have a very well-developed concept of person. The study, led by Carol Sankey at Université de Rennes in France, focused on horses and their trainers, but extrapolated its findings to other domesticated animals.
Concept of person is another creature’s ability to perceive a human through both vocal and visual cues. It also involves the animal’s ability to make judgments based on a human’s previous behavior.
Humans have a well-formed concept of person. This study found that domesticated animals do, too. Turn your back on a horse, avert your gaze, or look distracted and your four-legged friend will probably follow your rules, assuming you’ve developed a good relationship beforehand. Under the same conditions, the same horse might flout rules from a new trainer. These researchers suggest that the horse’s knowing what to expect is what is causing this difference in behavior.
The research methodology involved testing the obedience of horses who were told to stay immobile by both familiar and unfamiliar trainers, in different states of attention. In the first state, trainers maintained eye contact with the horses while issuing commands. If the horse moved his head or shifted his eyes, the trainer noted this movement. In the second state, the trainers closed their eyes but kept an attentive posture. In the third state, the trainers broke eye contact and looked above the horse, maintaining the same posture. In the fourth and least attentive state, the trainers turned their backs on their horse.
The study found that – when issued an order to remain immobile by a familiar person – a horse is more likely to follow the order even when the person turns away or is otherwise distracted. Switch the familiar person with an unfamiliar person, however, and the story changes drastically. While the horses in this study still obeyed orders while the human maintained a watchful gaze, the creatures promptly disobeyed as soon as their trainers were otherwise occupied.
The study concluded that horses who had developed a solid relationship with their trainers have a good concept of person. These horses knew their trainers well enough to anticipate their expectations, whether the trainer is fully engaged or in some state of distraction. On the other hand, a trainer working with a new horse can expect less success.