Our Language

Last revised April 16, 2017.

Humans are pretty good at understanding human communication.1

Birds, Dogs, and Dr. Dolittle

Yes, you can be Doctor Dolittle. This chapter provides some ideas on how to talk to one of the animals — your horse — and how to both listen and understand what he is saying back to you.

Consider Alex:

Alex he could identify 50 different objects and recognize quantities up to six; that he could distinguish seven colors and five shapes, and understand the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same”, and “different”… He had a vocabulary of over 100 words, but was exceptional in that he appeared to have understanding of what he said. For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could describe a key as a key no matter what its size or color, and could determine how the key was different from others.2

Alex was an African Grey parrot.

Other birds have not shown Alex’s talents yet, but they haven’t had a loving animal psychologist working with them for years. Alex’s friend and trainer was Irene Pepperberg3, who proved what was possible with her parrot, not what was normal. But “normal” for birds is constant chatter, and they are very, very good at listening. To us, a crow says “Caw Caw”. But the caw of a crow is distinctive for each crow, and so can be used by one to identify another. Skeptics might try this experiment, if you happen to have a group of crows you can listen to: Pick out a single “caw”. Keep listening. In a minute or less, you’ll hear that same distinctive “caw” again. We can distinguish crows by their caws after all! But there isn’t much we can do about it, because just as they once sounded alike, we now note that they all look alike. If we want to get better here, we’re going to spend some time with crows.

Crows are talkative. They’ll talk in flight, talk from a branch, talk on the ground. They aren’t just making noise, they are talking to each other. A male crow, looking for his wife, can caw using the sound she makes when she is cawing. It isn’t an exact copy, though. She knows who’s asking. Crows are not limited to identifying each other by their “caw”. They can also recognize birds other than crows from their voice.4

Our notions of becoming Dr. Dolittle may be inspired by the verbal talents of birds, or with the skills of dogs. John Pilley tells us about his dog Chaser,5 who could fetch 1,022 different toys by their name. Chaser has also learned the syntax and semantics of sentences consisting of three elements of grammar, a prepositional object, verb, and direct object. Understanding the syntax of the sentences required that Chaser could behave differently when instructed “to ball take Frisbee” and “to Frisbee take ball.” Chaser also learned concepts: her racquetball was also one of over 100 balls she knew the names of, and her racquetball was one of over 1000 objects she knew were “toys”. Chaser understood that she could play with toys, but not chew on “not toys”.

So Alex and Chaser leave us with high expectations: we can talk to our horse in simple language, and he will certainly understand us. But there are two principles that stand in our way:

  1. Apart from men, animals that are good talkers are good listeners. Birds, for instance, are very vocal. They sing. They call. They talk to themselves. And in the nest box, they whisper to their honey. Such communication is a two way street: if they are going to succeed in a conversation, they must listen just as much as they talk.
  2. Animals that don’t speak often are not good listeners. In contrast to crows and parrots, horses have a very small spoken vocabulary, and do not speak often.

Dogs are an exception to my two rules of communication: they listen carefully, but they don’t speak.

A Horse’s Listening Vocabulary.

Listening vocabulary is the set of words that we know when we hear them spoken. Dogs make it clear that a listening vocabulary and a speaking vocabulary are very different things. The dog Chaser learned the meaning of over 1,000 spoken words, even though she never learned to talk.6 I have not found any scientific evidence that any horse understands any word if it is not pronounced with a certain inflection at a certain time, and accompanied by some non-verbal signal. That doesn’t mean your horse doesn’t get it when you are chatting with him. But I don’t think that the horses that researchers have used get it.7

What words your horse might learn will depend on many things.

  • Words should always accompany a particular behavior on your part.
  • Your horse will have an easier time learning new words if they sound quite a bit different than the other words that he knows.
  • Horses are very aware of pitch changes, it seems. “Whoa” is usually said while progressively lowering the tone. “Canter” usually adds a higher pitch to the second syllable. Because horses are very aware of changes in pitch (see above), you will want to use the same pitch and pitch changes whenever you say a word.
  • You will want to use words or phrases that are easy for you to remember, and use them with exactly the same pronunciation each time you want to signal something verbally.

Does your horse know his name? I doubt it, because I doubt he has any conception of naming things. Naming is what you do when you speak and understand speech. He knows the whinny of his friend, and others in his pasture, but I can’t whinny, and he’s not Mr. Ed. So we are stuck.

I have known my horse eleven years. When we are together and no one else is around, I talk to him non-stop. I tell him I love him. I laugh at his jokes. I ask if he’d like another carrot. I enjoy my pillow talk with him, but the fact is that his responses are limited. Sometimes he licks me and licks me. I believe he is telling me that he loves me. But he doesn’t lick me when I tell him I love him. He’s got to be in the mood.

It seems as if everyone in the horse world talks to their horse, and everyone seems to believe that their horse is understanding what they are saying. I have grown skeptical. But I’ll share some thoughts as if horses could understand.

My favorite words with my horse are “Good Boy!”. I try to spit it out at the first moment that I am pleased, and it is often followed by a carrot slice and a caress. I fancy that he understands me, even though he has no understanding of either word.

Draft horses and sled dogs have learned “gee” and “haw”. In the U.S., “gee” means “turn to the right”, and “haw” means “turn to the left.8” You might consider using these words when riding, as a steering aid. But these words have no intrinsic meaning. When I looked up “gee” on line, Google9 tells me that it is “a command to a horse to go faster.” If Google doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I’d better be careful.

Many riders use “WHOA” or “HO” to ask their horse to stop, “TERRRR…OT” to break into a trot, and “CANNNN…TER” to break into a canter. Horses likely only understand these words in some context. If you ask for a trot when he is standing in the aisle of the barn, nothing will happen. On the other hand, if you are standing in the round pen, and do all the movement you normally do to get him to trot, but say “BANK…ER”, he’ll almost certainly trot. And he’ll almost certainly not be puzzled.

Some possible words:

  • I use “OK” when I mean to release G from his duty, and give him freedom to do what he’d been thinking about. So if he has been eyeing some great grass, and I decide that he may graze during this pause in our trail ride, I say “OK” and he generally will begin to graze. I accompany the OK with slackening the reins, so he can reach the grass, and with sitting back in the saddle.
  • I also use “OK” when we are moving on the trail, and encounter a section where we can safely move faster. Because G would normally prefer to be going faster in the woods than I like, this releases him from my restraint. Again, I will usually add some slack to the reins. Things don’t always work out, though. On occasion, he understands “OK” to mean that he can gallop, rather than just shift up to the next gear.
  • I use “NO” when I disapprove of some malevolent behavior he is planning, like giving me a love bite or gentle kick in the knee. He does seem to understand this one, but it is likely my tone of voice that he has noticed.
  • I use the word “Ready?”, expressed as a question with a rising tone, when I am about to give him another signal, in an effort to gain his attention. If we are in an arena, with me walking alongside him, I might be practicing walking squares with him at liberty. When I’m ready to turn a corner, I first ask “Ready?”, then turn. Or if I am about to ask him to stop, I’ll ask “Ready?”, then place my open palm facing him, my arm at my side.
  • I use “Go get it!” when we are playing with a ball or any tossed object, such as his rubber chicken. “Go get it!” along with a hand signal (open palm, arm extended pointing to the object, forearm moving up and down) will send him after these objects, if I have his attention first.
  • “Pick it up!” will generally work with a dropped glove or hat or rubber chicken, providing it has landed just in front of him, and he noticed its fall. After he picks it up, he sometimes gives it a shake. I watch carefully, and will sometimes say “give it a shake” — if I get my timing right, it looks like he is following my command. He then hands me the object, and releases his grip, knowing that he is likely to score a carrot slice.

Everyone will have their own list of words they use with their horses. One expert provides a list of 27 words she uses.10 But its one thing to use a word, and another to understand its meaning.

My horse and I have worked out a lot of compatible behaviors. He is probably better at reading my mind than reading my lips. And he may have no clue about the meaning of any word he hears.

Your horse may be more adept at learning words than mine, or better able to concentrate. In my own experience, any tricks are best taught with non-verbal signals, and the words used are for the benefit of your (human) audience. My non-verbal cues are far more powerful in directing him than my words.

Remember the opening lines of the song “Hello, I’m Mr. Ed”:

A horse is a horse, of course, of course,  And no one can talk to a horse of course.11

Horses are not parrots, crows, or dogs. Your efforts to talk to your horse will not likely even get him to turn his ears toward you. He doesn’t know what you are saying. He doesn’t care what you are saying. He has no idea you are talking to him. And he has nothing to say in return. We know that our horse cannot speak our language. We imagine that he can comprehend our language, though. Riders regularly talk to their horses. Horses regularly don’t even bother turning their ears to listen to the blather.

Going Non-Verbal.

Horses are non-verbal.  Your horse has no clue what you are saying, no matter what you say. Horses don’t have names for each other, and no horse will mind if you call him “Mr. Horse” or “Mr. Ed.” Horses don’t have words for a sex, so you may tell your gelding “Good girl!” with the same effect as telling him “Good boy!”. And horses don’t have a well-developed sense of morality. So if uttered with the same intonation, “good boy!” and “bad boy!” would have the same effect.

Because horses don’t speak and most can’t read, you need to decide if you will wait for your horse to come to understand you, or if you will go about understanding your horse. If you can learn to communicate with signals your horse already understands, you’ll likely get to the finish line long before others. If you want to understand your horse, you’ll need to understand what he says with his ears, mouth, neck position, feet and tail. And you’ll need to start communicating with him using non-verbal signals.

If a horse isn’t going to listen to us, then we might as well stop talking, yelling, cajoling. In fact, there is no need for a horse whisperer to even whisper.

A decision to use a horse’s own language is a good start, but it won’t be easy. Us humans don’t have a tail. We have tiny fixed ears. We have a short, inflexible neck. We’ve only got two legs. Exactly how will we go about speaking in the horse’s native language? If we can mimic any aspect of equine signaling, it won’t be with subtlety. Our efforts to speak horse are bound to fail in most cases, and for every success, there will be surprising failures — where we tried signaling appeasement, and instead signaled threat.

Your horse has a name that the other horses know. The name you gave him is not it. He gives his name when he whinnies. When he calls his name, the others in his herd all know where he is. Only his best friend in that pasture is likely to respond. When he does, your horse will know who responded, and where they are. You likely won’t.

When you climb on your horse’s back, you have violated all ten commandments that govern Mr. Horse. Geldings and stallions simply don’t allow horses on their backs. Mares choose who may mount, and they are likely to accept mounting about five minutes each year. Being mounted is not merely disallowed by your horse. It is something that a terrifies a wild horse. Mountain lions mount horses in the process of turning them into dinner.

And mounting isn’t the only problem. A horse that gets tangled in an old fence is terrified by the restraint, because restraint can mean death. Flight requires liberty. So do you suppose that a wild horse yearns for a bridle or any other contraption that ties him down? And if a wild horse does not like this, why would our pet recently domesticated horse like it?

The round pen?

Enter the “horse whisperer”, who fancies that he speaks the language of horse. He gives a signal or two, and drives the horse off. Very clever. The horse doesn’t leave the county, though, because he is trapped in a round pen, and so can only run in circles. And what else can a horse whisperer do? Not much. The list of signals that a horse whisperer can use on a horse, that it understands when it first encounters them with this guy, is very, very short.12 A horse will not know many human signals until he is taught them.

These days, horse whisperers seem to live in the round pen. Advocates of the round pen see what happens there as not involving coercion, and instead speaking the horse’s language. At the end of a session, if the horse has “joined up”, we consider it successful and quick call it a day.

But round pen advocates are wrong about most everything. Making a horse tear around a round pen requires coercion — whether from a lunge whip or our outstretched claws and scary gaze. Horses simply want to avoid such coercion. A smart horse is one that quickly reports in to the trainer in the center of the pen, having learned that this will stop the efforts to make it run.

My boy Bud is such a horse (actually, he’s a mule). Over the course of just a few sessions in the round pen, he transformed:

  1. On his first time in the round pen, Bud ran hard, at the slightest suggestion, and kept going until he was tired. He ran in whatever direction he was asked, and delivered half an hour of athletic prowess.
  2. On Bud’s second time in the round pen, he ran half as hard, half as far, before stopping and coming to the center.
  3. By Bud’s fourth time in the round pen, I could not drive him off. If I gave him the signal to run, he simply turned and walked over to me.

Bud is young. He didn’t know me well when we started the round pen, and didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. But very quickly, he learned how predictable things would be in his round pen sessions, and how to end the coercive signals. Barring a distraction, Bud now follows me around the round pen, his nose at my elbow, stopping when I stop, turning when I turn. I’m no horse whisperer. But Bud hates negative reinforcement.13 And he loves praise and treats.

I suppose I could get Bud to run in the round pen if only I’d bring a whip with me, or an axe, or a shotgun. Surely there is something left that will scare the bejeebers out of him. But before I shoot him, I want to know just what important skill he will learn once he quickly comes to me in the round pen. Is running in circles good for his health? For our relationship?

We have made a bad start on communicating with our horse.

And so we find ourselves in a position where, with any horse, all we can expect to be is a caregiver, companion, and trainer. We will never be respected in the way horses respect a stallion or alpha mare. Our hungry horse will never choose to be with us over choosing food — unless we are armed with treats. Our horse playing in the pasture with a friend will never choose to stop what he is doing and come play with us. Of course we can wait until he is not playing and try again. And when we make him come with us, we can pretend he is doing what he loves.


You need to catch your horse in the pasture. Today, it seems, he would rather play with a friend or snack at the hay or some new grass he has found. What should you do?

I paid a trainer a total of $500, spread across 10 “lessons”, to learn his tricks of catching my young mule. My plan was to pass along his techniques to you. As I watched him in action, he told me my mule needed to learn to respect me, needed leadership, was too dominant, etc. etc. For ten lessons the trainer had his way with my mule. My mule was having none of it, and on the tenth lesson, the trainer spent an hour and a half trying to catch him. I decided that $500 was enough, and that I needed to branch out on my own. Now, after three sessions of 20 minutes each with me, my mule comes to the gate when he sees me. My secret weapon was carrot, rather than stick. I had a bucket of grain in my hand. My trainer had a halter.

There are many ways for you to measure your progress in catching your horse. If you are not yet catching him, then use changes in flight distance — the distance at which he will begin to move off — to assess your progress. If you are catching him, then consider timing yourself. Your goal: he gets to the gate before you do, lowers his head for the halter, and waits while you try to get it on.

How should you approach a horse that you are trying to catch, other than with buckets of grain in both hands and some down your shirt? Assuming you want to do it quickly, and be able to do it tomorrow, too, do this:

Posture: it is often recommended that you approach with a soft, relaxed posture — perhaps a slouch.

Direction of travel: To get closer, you have a choice of a direct route or tacking like a sailboat, first closer but to their left, then closer but to their right. By managing the angle, the horse may conclude that you are not coming directly to them. As you do, in fact, get closer, they may habituate to the sight of you, and become less worried.

Speed of travel: It is often suggested that a slow approach works best in reducing flight distance. This has been supported by research, that showed that semi-feral ponies ran farther when approached by someone moving quickly than if they moved more slowly.14 Animals infer intent from the speed of approach of another animal.

Eye contact: You might look directly at your target, or avert your gaze, or even cover your eyes with you hand, and look between your fingers at your horse. In my own experience with wild animals, I find that looking at the ground, or turning my head to the side, or hiding my eyes behind my half-closed fingers all may help in calming the wildlife. In a study of this in a pasture situation with horses, when an approaching human made eye contact with the horses, she could not get as close to them as when she avoided eye contact.15 Direct eye gaze (staring) is seen as threatening in dogs,16 macaques17, iguanas,18 and sheep,19 and presumably is found threatening by other species too. When approaching a skittish horse, don’t keep your eyes on the prize.

Use of arms: What you do with your arms may affect a horse’s apprehensiveness. Arms at your side are the least threatening. Arms outstretched are threatening, outstretched with fingers open even more threatening, and moving (or swinging a rope) the most threatening.20 To approach a bird, I find it is useful to not have arms at all — I keep them pinned to my side. With the wild animals I’ve watched, an arm dropping down is less disturbing than one moving up, consistent with their understanding of falling leaves and gravity. The more we resemble a bird of a feather, the better our chances of flocking together.

Vocalization: In approaching a wild animal, it seems to me that quiet, steady talking helps with calming birds, but is frightening to mammals. Birds are good communicators, always talking, and always expecting to be talked to. They can use your voice to help track your whereabouts as you fill a feeder or raise your binoculars. But mammals, in general, are quiet, and expect others to be quiet. Unless you are approaching Mr. Ed, saying nothing might give a skittish horse the most comfort as you approach.

Side: It may be coincidental that we tend to sleep more on the non-dominant side of our body (usually the left), and that side is likely to become more wrinkled as a result. It may be coincidental that 70% of us have better vision in our right eye. It may be coincidental that models and actresses often prefer to be photographed on their right sides.21 But it is likely that side matters.

Under a circumstance in which you are free to approach your horse from his left side, from his right side, or from in front (so that he can see you with both eyes), what should you choose? A study in Australia22 found “greater reactivity to a novel stimulus presented in the left compared to the right monocular visual field”. In their study, the experimenter approached while opening and closing an umbrella. Horses that were approached from their right side did not move off as far as those approached from their left side. And when horses did not have one eye blindfolded, and were allowed to turn their heads before moving off, those who turned to their right — exposing their left eye to the experimenter — moved farther away in response. As I write in the section on “The Mind of Your Horse”, the left side of the brain, which processes most of the visual signals from the right side, is specialized for approach and for processing positive emotions. But to calm a horse, the message from this research is clear: get on their right side.

Repetition: Every time you try catching your horse, it should get easier, provided he finds the experience rewarding (a bucket of grain will go a long way here) and that you remain calm and patient. In one study of semi-feral ponies, 10 trials in which the researcher tried approaching nervous horses transformed them from nervous to curious, from avoiding to approaching.23 In these 10 trials, the flight distance of the ponies decreased, and their behavior became more positive following the appearance of the researcher.

Putting it all together: One study approached horses with two different methods. “In the direct condition the researcher walked assertively towards the ponies, adopting a tense, upright stance, with head and shoulders facing square onto the pony group, and eye gaze focused onto the group. In the indirect condition the researcher adopted a more relaxed posture, with relaxed upper body turned 45◦ away from the direction of movement, and eye gaze averted from the ponies.” The researchers found that the two approach styles had no impact on flight distance (the distance at which they began to move off), but the direct approach sent the ponies off farther and moving faster.24

If your horse is not catchable, choose a more modest goal. Don’t try catching him. Try delivering a scoop of grain in a bucket. If you can get close enough, and he will eat from the bucket, then try some movement while holding the bucket. You can position the bucket so that he needs to move closer to you to reach it. If you can get to his side, perhaps try some slow, careful rubs or scratches. As the buckets starts to empty, begin your walk to the gate. If he doesn’t follow, pause, turn, and offer the bucket. If he does follow, pause, turn and offer the bucket a few times along the way to the gate. Time your supply of grain so that you are just running out as you get to the gate. Repeat until he meets you at the gate. Now you can try putting a rope over his neck, and leading him with your bucket…

A horse’s visual vocabulary

Visual signals can have meaning to your horse. Consider the tricks of the round pen. Horses and mules of any age all understand some basic signals from humans. Two examples:

  • Arm out horizontally, palm open, fingers splayed: danger. Move away from this.
  • Eyes on haunch. Move away from this.

Most communication in the round pen sends a horse away, something we generally don’t need to do in real life. We should experiment in the round pen with what signals will draw him toward us. Here’s a picture of what seems to work for me.

The “come here” signal, performed by opening and closing the index finger. Works in the U.S. May have other meanings elsewhere.25


Humans are masters of using a limb to point. Pointing with an index finger is not used as often by free living primates,26 and never by jellyfish.

It seems to me that horses should be able to understand pointing. When a person, dog, or tractor approaches, all of the horses standing nearby are likely to lift their heads and face the object. Certainly the sight, sound and scent of the approaching object give all these horses a common reason to look in its direction, and their gaze is directed by the object, toward the object. While they monitor the object, they also monitor each other, and when one horse decides the object is safe, and lowers his head to graze, others may follow — partly because of their independent comparable decisions, partly because they see that others are comfortable. In situations like this, horses indicate their states by lifting their heads and by lowering their heads. They indicate the direction of the trouble by looking at it. Fellow horses inevitably learn to look in the same direction as the others are looking, and may use the head orientation, neck orientation, and eye orientation of the others as directional cues. Your extended arm looks something like a horse’s nose. Any horse who has not been trained to look in the direction of a pointing arm has, in fact, learned this already.

In the absence of special training, studies indicate that pointing is effective at directing horses, dogs, goats, wolves, cats, capuchin monkeys, rhesus monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, foxes, and seals to food. Food that is within the reach of the experimenter is more often located from pointing than food beyond arm’s reach. But dogs and cats do fine when the experimenter points to food beyond arm’s reach. The effectiveness of pointing is increased when the experimenter gazes at the object he is pointing to, and increased if the pointing remains in position until the animal reaches the target (as compared with a brief signal27).

Wolves can signal the direction of potential prey by pointing, freezing in a pointing position aimed at the target.28 Pointer dogs likely capitalize on their genetics for their own talents in pointing.

Pointing requires some skill in assessing angles. In my kayak I have done experiments with Canada geese. If I headed directly at a flock sitting on the water, they would always fly when I reached a certain distance from them. If I headed at an angle, in a straight line that would not intersect this flight distance, they would not fly. This decision to fly or not fly was not based on what I was, but on whether I was on a collision course with them. If I was not on a collision course, then I was not a threat.

A horse that doesn’t want to be caught in a pasture shows comparable skill in calculating angles: walk directly at him, and he will move away when you have reached his flight distance. Zig zag your course across the pasture, heading in his general direction but never directly at the circle of his flight distance, and he will not flee. So horses, geese, and probably many other animals have some native skill in inferring direction by observing just brief movement. This skill in geometry can work in your advantage when you point at a distance object to direct your horse toward it. Your point, and your horse must trace a line along your arm and hand, extend this line out, and find the likely object that is closest to this line.

My horse understands my hand signals for the direction I want to proceed. As we approach an intersection on the trail, I wait to signal until we have reached the distance where he begins to think about left, right or straight — usually about 15-25 feet away from the intersection if we are walking. With him wondering which way we should go, I can answer his question by leaning over and using my arm and open hand to indicate the direction we will be going. I position the arm so he can see it with an eye. I keep the hand open flat, thumb up. I move my forearm and hand up and down a few times, to make it more noticeable to him. After this signal, I don’t need to do anything with reins, my legs, or my body. He always makes the correct move. When he and I are walking on the ground, the same signal works as it does from the saddle.

To strengthen the effectiveness of your point, remove sunglasses, and look at the object intently. Stand in a position where your horse can see your face and eyes. The gaze has been found to be effective in directing seals, dolphins, dogs, and goats to a target,29 and should help with directing your horse.

Working with your horse to improve his understanding of your pointing could become an important basic skill, useful in many situations. The general format could be “move now in the direction I am pointing. If there is a prominent object along that route, such as a traffic cone on the arena floor, then proceed to that object and await further instructions. If we are on a trail in dense Eastern woods, then turn at the next intersection in the direction of my point.” Sustain your point until he gets it, and is headed towards your target. Once he understands what to do with a point, you’ll be able to use a point to direct him to a mounting block, the next obstacle on the obstacle course, the stall he should enter when he enters the barn, and which way to turn on the trail.

You will find useful variations of pointing. If my horse has just entered the barn, and I want him facing the other way in the aisle, I point to the ground with a straight arm, and make a circular motion with my arm. He will usually turn around on this signal.

Horses seem to understand a pointing hand.

Trainer Jodie Foreman30 cues Bob to the side of the mounting block where he is to stand. Bob is at liberty, Jodie is using her hand signals and stride to signal what she wants. She rewards with a verbal “Good Boy!”.

A recent study showed that horses can react, for instance, to pointing by humans to find hidden food, suggesting that they are able to associate humans with relevant situations, developing communication strategies based on humans’ cues.31

There are many questions that scientists and you might explore:

  • Is pointing with a flattened hand facing him more effective than pointing with an index finger? (That is my belief.)
  • Is pointing with a forearm that is bobbing up and down more effective than pointing with a straight, immobile arm? (Again, that is my belief.)
  • How long should the point be maintained? (I think at least until he identifies the target and is headed toward it.)

It is time we lowered our expectations. We will need to learn the language of horse if we want to know what he is saying. We will have to “speak” in a symbolic non-verbal language if we want him to understand us.


1 Image source:

2 “Alex (parrot)”

3 Pepperberg, Irene. Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Harper Collins, 2009.

4 Wascher, Claudia AF, Georgine Szipl, Markus Boeckle, and Anna Wilkinson. “You sound familiar: carrion crows can differentiate between the calls of known and unknown heterospecifics.” Animal cognition 15, no. 5 (2012): 1015-1019.

5 Pilley, John W., and Hilary Hinzmann. Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

6 Pilley, J. W., & Hinzmann, H. (2013). Chaser: Unlocking the genius of the dog who knows a thousand words. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

7 Share my disappointment by looking up the studies of horses understanding speech. Try a search something like this:

8 Wikipedia explains “Gee (pronounced “jee”) means to turn to the off side (away from the driver). Haw means to turn to the near side (towards the driver). In the United States, the driver of draft animals sits on their left, so animals will turn right to the gee command, and left to the haw command. In England the driver stands to the right of the animals, reversing the relative directions they indicate (i.e., an English trained team of horses will “haw” to the right, while an American trained team will “haw” to the left — in both cases towards their driver.) “


10 Anderson, Michelle. “The Words I Use With Horses: A Translation”

11 The song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and sung by Livingston. Find the rest of the words here:

12 Roberts, J.M., Browning, B.A., 1998. Proximity and threats in highland ponies. Soc Networks 20, 227-238.

13 It has been proposed that horses don’t like being chased, and that their coming to a halt in the round pen reflects that. Krueger, K. 2007. Behaviour of horses in the ‘round pen technique.’ Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 104, 162-170

14 Birke, Lynda, Jo Hockenhull, Emma Creighton, Lisa Pinno, Jenny Mee, and Daniel Mills. “Horses’ responses to variation in human approach.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 134, no. 1 (2011): 56-63.

15 Birke, Lynda, Jo Hockenhull, Emma Creighton, Lisa Pinno, Jenny Mee, and Daniel Mills. “Horses’ responses to variation in human approach.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 134, no. 1 (2011): 56-63. However, see Verrill, Sarah, and Sue McDonnell. “Equal outcomes with and without human-to-horse eye contact when catching horses and ponies in an open pasture.” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 28, no. 5 (2008): 309-312.

16 Bradshaw, J.W.S., Nott, H.M.R., 1995. Social and communication behaviour of companion dogs. In: Serpell, J. (Ed.), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge University

Press, Cambridge, pp. 115–130.

17 Coss, R.G., Marks, S., Ramakrishnan, U., 2002. Early environment shapes the development of gaze aversion by wild bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata). Primates 43, 217–222.

18 Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Murray, B.G., 1992. Risk discrimination of eye contact

and directness of approach in black Iguanas (Ctenosaura similis).

J. Comp. Psychol. 106, 97–101.

19 Beausoleil, N.J., Stafford, K.J., Mellor, D.J., 2006. Does direct human eye

contact function as a warning cue for domestic sheep (Ovis aries)? J.

Comp. Psychol. 120, 269–279.

20 Based largely on my personal experience. See also Birke, Lynda, Jo Hockenhull, Emma Creighton, Lisa Pinno, Jenny Mee, and Daniel Mills. “Horses’ responses to variation in human approach.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 134, no. 1 (2011): 56-63.

21 Rainey, Sarah. “Why so many women think their right side looks better than the left”. Daily Mail.

22 Austin, N. P., and L. J. Rogers. “Asymmetry of flight and escape turning responses in horses.” Laterality 12, no. 5 (2007): 464-474.

23 Birke, Lynda, Jo Hockenhull, Emma Creighton, Lisa Pinno, Jenny Mee, and Daniel Mills. “Horses’ responses to variation in human approach.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 134, no. 1 (2011): 56-63.

24 Birke, Lynda, Jo Hockenhull, Emma Creighton, Lisa Pinno, Jenny Mee, and Daniel Mills. “Horses’ responses to variation in human approach.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 134, no. 1 (2011): 56-63.

25 Image source: “Did you know that a normal gesture with hands that you do everyday can land you in jail?” Other Voice Review.

26 Vea JJ, Sabater-Pi J (1998) Spontaneous pointing behaviour in the wild pygmy chimpanzees (Pan paniscus). Folia Prim 69:289–290

27 Reviewed in Miklósi, Ádam, and Krisztina Soproni. “A comparative analysis of animals’ understanding of the human pointing gesture.” Animal cognition 9.2 (2006): 81-93.

28 Mech LD (1970) The wolf: The ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Natural History Press, New York

29 Maros, Katalin, Márta Gácsi, and Ádám Miklósi. “Comprehension of human pointing gestures in horses (Equus caballus).” Animal cognition 11.3 (2008): 457-466.

30 For a video showing how this horse helps at the mounting block, see Foreman, Jodie. “Bob the horse loves the mounting block” June 26, 2016.

31 Maros, Katalin, Márta Gácsi, and Ádám Miklósi. “Comprehension of human pointing gestures in horses (Equus caballus).” Animal cognition 11, no. 3 (2008): 457-466.


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