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Does Your Horse Know You’Re Watching?

Posted by vwkoch, in horse stories 13 February 2012 · 126 views

I recently read an article about an experiment to see if dogs could tell when people were paying attention to them.  The conclusion of the authors was that dogs COULD tell if people were paying attention, but their ability to do so depended on the context.  One context in which their ability was questioned was in retrieving a ball.  The test was whether dogs would take the ball to the front of the body if a person had his back turned.  The dogs were successful when the person was sitting down, but not when he was standing up.  The authors thought that the dogs might be confused when the standing person turned his back, because someone who asked them to fetch would not normally then turn away from them.

In any event, the test was a fairly simple one, so I thought I would try it with my horse.  The results were pretty interesting, and I do believe that horses (mine, at least) can tell when people are paying attention to them.  Of course, my experiment was not really scientific, but it’s something to think about, and perhaps, some day, someone will do a real experiment that will tell us even more.

What I did was just to copy part of the dog experiment.  I threw my horse’s Frisbee for her to fetch, then I turned my back on her.  I didn’t try the sitting part of the experiment.

First, I should describe how fetching normally works with my horse.  When she brings the Frisbee back, she stands in front of me to hand it to me.  She actually has to hand it to me.  She doesn’t get her treat if she just drops it at my feet.  So, it IS important to her that I’m paying attention.  (You can see her fetch here: http://www.youtube.c...?v=ipUQ_2eN7pM.)

When I turned my back on her, she DIDN’T walk all the way around me so she could stand in front of me to give me the Frisbee, but she also didn’t stand behind me and try to hand it to my back.  What she did was walk up beside me, until the junction of her head and neck was next to my shoulder, then wait for me to respond.  When I turned my head to look at her, she turned HER head to hand me the Frisbee.  I think that response is fascinating, from a scientific standpoint, for several reasons --- which I will elaborate.

First of all, I think it shows that she DID know whether or not I was paying attention.  She didn’t try to present the Frisbee to my back, so she knew I had to see her to be able to take it --- and that I saw her with my eyes (or my face or whatever).  Even more fascinating was that she knew she didn’t have to go all the way around me for me to see her.  She went just far enough to be sure that I could see her out of the corner of my eye.  Finally, she didn’t try to hand me the Frisbee until I turned to look at her directly.  She knew that, even though I could see her, I wasn’t really paying attention to her until I looked at her directly.

I find it especially interesting that she knew so precisely when she had entered my peripheral vision --- interesting because of the difference between our vision and a horse’s vision.  Like dogs, we have predator vision.  Our eyes are on the front of our faces, so we pretty much can only see what’s in front of us.  Therefore, it makes sense for a dog to go all the way around a person to present a retrieved object to the front of the person because the dog sees best that way, so it would be natural (as well as correct) for it to assume that a person sees that way, too.

Horses, however, have prey vision.  Their eyes are on the sides of their faces, so they see quite well to the sides of their bodies and can even see fairly well behind themselves.  Therefore, it would have made sense for my horse to present the Frisbee to my back, because she could see it if I presented it to HER back end (as long as I wasn’t DIRECTLY behind her).  It made even more sense for her to present it to my side, because she could have easily seen it if I presented it to HER side.  However, she would have seen it perfectly well if I stood to the side of her shoulder, or even her rear end (i.e., BEHIND her head), so how did she know that I wouldn’t see it unless she brought it PAST my head, and how did she know how far past my head to go?  The fact that she brought it into my peripheral vision, then stopped, tells me that she knew exactly when I could or couldn’t see her.  In other words, she knew not only that I needed to see her, and that my vision was different from hers --- she actually knew exactly when I did or did not see her!

Even more intriguing was that she made no attempt to give me the Frisbee until I turned my head to look at her directly.  In other words, when she came up beside me and stopped, she knew that I could see her, but she also knew that I wasn’t paying attention to her.  When I turned my head to look at her directly, she knew that I was then paying attention to her and that she could offer me the Frisbee.

To me, that evidence is even more convincing than the dog experiment results as far as indicating that horses know when people are paying attention to them.  It also indicates that horses understand the human visual field even though it is different from theirs.  Evolutionarily, of course, it makes sense that a prey animal could tell whether or not a predator could see it, but I still find the results of my experiment to be pretty amazing, when you think of all the ramifications.

Tori repeated her behavior when I tried the experiment again, so I decided to try it a third time and make it more difficult.  We were playing fetch in the aisle way of the barn, and I had been standing to the left side of the aisle perpendicular to the wall, so that she was coming up to my right side to present the Frisbee.  The third time I threw the Frisbee, I stood at a 45-degree angle facing toward the wall, so that, if she came up even with me, as she had done before, she would actually be standing behind me.  In order to come all the way up to my right side, as she had done previously, she would have to circle part way around me --- or so I thought.

Tori did indeed come up even with me at first, and because she was actually behind me, I couldn’t see what she was doing.  However, she stood there only a second before realizing that her “system” wasn’t working any more --- that she was, in fact, standing at my back and I couldn’t see her.  She then pivoted her front end to the left and presented the Frisbee on my LEFT side.  Score one for laziness and taking the shortest route to success, but again, she showed that she knew I had to see her and that she knew where she had to be so I COULD see her.  She also showed that she knew I could see from either side, not just the right side.  Therefore, I am convinced that my horse can tell when she’s “caught my eye”, so to speak.

Now, my experiment wasn’t scientific, by any means.  Tori could have been reacting to something other than a sense that I was seeing her.  For example, she could have just been bringing the Frisbee close to my hand, instead of into my visual field.  That explanation would make sense because I use my hand to take the Frisbee from her.  However, I don’t believe she was oriented on my hand, because she brought the Frisbee PAST my hand, and she didn’t offer it to me until I turned my head.  Nevertheless, a truly scientific experiment would need to be more controlled, to rule out such alternative explanations.

From a nonscientific viewpoint, though, if “paying attention” is defined as “looking at”, and the question is whether an animal knows if you’re looking at it, I believe most animals would pass the test.  As I mentioned before, it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint that a prey animal could tell whether or not a predator was watching it, and it would also make sense for a predator to know whether or not its prey could see it.  I believe that most animals know that the eyes are the means of seeing and recognize the eyes of other species.  We speak about our eyes “meeting” when we look into the eyes of another human being, and I have had the same experience when I looked into the eyes of animals --- even wild animals.  The feeling is a difficult one to describe, but I’m sure everyone knows it.  It’s a feeling of acknowledgement.  You know that the animal has seen you and that it knows you have seen it.  You each know that you are paying attention to one another.

I make eye contact with my horse fairly frequently, and there’s definitely a difference between just seeing each other and actually making eye contact.  For example, when I’m grooming her, she keeps an eye on me almost constantly, but it’s just a matter of keeping me in her peripheral vision.  However, if I turn my head to look at her face, she immediately makes eye contact to see what I want.  If she’s doing something bad, she’ll quit doing it as soon as we make eye contact.  I don’t need to say anything or do anything threatening.  I simply let her know I’m paying attention, and she’ll quit misbehaving.

Another example occurs when I’m riding.  When she’s expecting (or just hoping for) a treat reward, she turns her head slightly to the side and watches my hand and my pocket.  However, if she’s REALLY expecting a treat and I don’t reach for one, she cocks her nose up to look at my face (and meet my eyes), so she can make sure I’m aware of her belief that she’s earned a reward. In essence, she’s asking “Are you paying attention?!  You’re supposed to reward me now!”

We can pay attention to an animal just by looking at it.  We don’t need to have eye contact to be paying attention.  However, eye contact confirms that we ARE paying attention, and between two beings who are familiar with each other, it can communicate other things as well.  From a scientific standpoint, knowing that animals can tell when we’re paying attention to them tells us something about the animal mind.  From Tori’s viewpoint, knowing when somebody’s paying attention to her has a far more important function.  If she couldn’t tell when somebody was looking at her, how would she know when to request a treat?  Clearly, then, understanding attention is crucial to her survival and well-being.  Right?




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