60-Second Science

Horse Hearers Know Who's Talking

When horses heard a familiar person's voice from a loudspeaker they preferentially looked at that person versus a stranger. Amy Kraft reports

“Say Wilbur, get a load of this story.” If you grew up in the '60s, you probably recognize the voice of Mr. Ed, TV’s talking horse. And it turns out, he might recognize your voice, too. A new study shows that even non-talking horses can tell individual people apart based on the sound of their voice.

Researchers put 32 horses in front of a familiar trainer and a new person. When the horses heard their trainer’s voice coming from a loudspeaker, they looked at their trainer almost exclusively. When the stranger’s voice was heard, they were about equally likely to look at either person. 

Another test used 10 trainers the horses were familiar with. And when the animals heard a voice, they looked at the correct person faster and concentrated on that person much more than any of the other choices. The study appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. [Leanne Proops and Karen McComb, "Cross-modal individual recognition in domestic horses (Equus caballus) extends to familiar humans"]

Researchers think the ability to recognize individual handlers might be rooted in the relationships the steeds have with their conspecific NEIGHHHHbors. I mean, neighbors.

—Amy Kraft

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]  

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