Bestowing your horse with a fitting moniker is one of the greatest joys of horse ownership; it’s an entertaining journey of trying on different names, from the common to the exotic, to see which name best fits your horse. However, the extraordinary care and effort that goes into picking the perfect name can seem futile if your horse continues to ignore you when called or addressed.
Some horses know their names. Horses can be taught to respond to a specific name; however, horses do not link their name with their self-identity. A horse who knows its name will pay attention to its handler when called as they expect a follow-up communication or event to occur.
Names are integral to human culture; they influence how people view themselves and interact with others. Choosing the right name for your horse is essential as it heavily influences how you view and interact with your horse. However, what does a name mean to your horse, and can it learn its name?
The Communication Differences Between Horses And Humans
Horses and humans are vastly different beings, each interpreting the world through a unique lens that shapes their behavior, expectations, and fears. One of the most significant differences between horses and humans is their method of communication.
To understand communication, we need to define the following terms:
- Verbal (word-based) communication is the use of words to create meaning.
- Non-verbal communication is communication without words; this includes posture, movement, facial expression, clothing styles, etc.
- Non-verbal vocalization is the use of sounds (e.g., laughter) to communicate.
Albert Mehrabian, a communications researcher, spent years investigating the primary method of human communication. He discovered that approximately:
- 55% of communication is done through body language
- 38% through non-verbal vocalizations
- 7% of information relayed is done with words.
Humans use words to relay content-based information; however, this information is not sufficient on its own. Written communications are subject to a high level of communication error because it lacks emotional context.
Body language and non-verbal vocalizations (e.g., tone, pitch, and talking speed) give critical information on the speaker’s intent, emotional status, and physical conditions. It’s intuitive to notice if someone is angry, tired, or happy when speaking to them in person, but this information remains elusive when reading a message.
Unlike humans, horses do not use verbal communication; instead, they rely on vocalizations and body language to communicate. Body language is the predominant modality of equine communications and is used preferentially to non-verbal vocalizations.
Do Horses Understand Human Language?
When investigating the communication strategies of horses, it is apparent that they lack a spoken language, i.e., they do not use words to communicate. However, does a lack of an equine-specific language mean that they cannot understand any of the many human languages spoken worldwide?
Both humans and horses are social creatures whose survival is dependent on the cooperative efforts of a social group. The natural sociability of both horse and human acts as an intrinsic motivator for both parties to find an effective means of communicating with each other.
Horse and human partnerships are found upon the commonality of body language, a communication modality used by both species. Both horse and human use:
- Overt and subtle kinesics, i.e., body movement and facial expressions
- Haptics, i.e., touch
- Proxemics, i.e., the position of the body in relation to the other partner
A study conducted in 2019 found that horses could accurately detect if the human’s facial expression did not match the tone of the spoken word. This study provided conclusive evidence that horses can and do react to the emotional content of human non-verbal communication.
Although this study was ground-breaking in its insight into a horse’s emotional sensitivity, it did not reveal if horses can understand human words. The answer to this lies in the science of animal training and one particular horse and trainer pair.
The Science Of Training And Language Comprehension
When working from a distance (i.e., no chance for physical contact), communication between two individuals must be either auditory (i.e., hearing the message) or visual (i.e., seeing the message).
For years, animal behaviorists have successfully used various training strategies to influence horses and teach them verbal cues. Although trainers consistently use verbal cues to work with their horses, scientists have struggled to determine whether horses respond to the auditory signal or the combined visual-auditory command.
For example, a lesson horse learns to canter when an instructor says “CANTER” rather than when the rider cues them for a canter departure.
Is the horse responding to the subtle changes in the instructor’s body language (visual message) or the word “CANTER” (auditory message)?
Endo, The Blind Horse
Endo was born a normal, healthy, happy foal, the same as all his paddock mates that he grew up with. At 8 years old, Endo’s life took a turn for the worse; he was diagnosed with glaucoma, equine uveitis, and cataracts.
Despite Morgan, his owner, doing everything she could to preserve Endo’s vision and quality of life, it was not to be. By 13 years of age, Endo’s right eye ruptured and had to be surgically removed.
Six months later, it was clear that Endo’s left eye would also have to be removed, leaving Endo permanently blind!
Blindness is so debilitating and frightening for horses that most veterinarians, breeders, trainers, and other horse professionals recommend euthanasia as the only option. However, Morgan was not prepared to give up on her beloved Endo.
Teaching Endo To Understand Human Words
Morgan began the long and arduous process of teaching Endo to live confidently in permanent darkness. She used a variety of stratagems to help Endo adapt to his new reality, but one of the most crucial tools she gave him was the trust to follow her voice.
She taught Endo numerous voice and touch commands. In doing this, Morgan provided a rich insight into how horses learn and understand verbal cues.
When Endo responds to Morgan’s voice commands, he listens to both the non-verbal vocalizations AND the specific word. When working at a distance Endo, cannot receive a visual message (body language) and instead relies 100% on Morgan’s voice to lead him to where he needs to go.
At 19yrs, Endo knows more than 60 words and can perform liberty work, ridden exercises, and navigate obstacles like jumps and trail rides. You can see Endo following Morgan’s verbal cues here.
Apart from the resilience and ingenuity displayed by both Morgan and Endo, Morgan and Endo have provided valuable insight into how horses interpret human words.
Do Horses Know Their Name?
Although horses communicate exclusively using non-verbal communication, they have demonstrated an apparent ability to link a word with an action. The ability to give meaning to a spoken word by connecting it to a specific behavior is the most basic level of language comprehension.
However, the answer to whether horses know their names are derived from 3 questions surrounding this central query:
- Do horses call each other by name?
- Can horses associate a specific name with themselves?
- What does a name mean to a horse?
Do Horses Call Each Other By Name?
Horses produce 6 distinct non-verbal vocalizations:
These vocalizations are essential communication strategies that horses use to “speak” to other horses and their owners. Some vocalizations like whinnying and nickering are more likely to occur between affiliated pairs, e.g., best friends or a mare and her foal.
Scientists have discovered that while horses can identify the sound of individual horses, the horse’s sounds do not vary based on who they are “speaking” to.
Another way of looking at this is to say that the horses do not change the sound they make to call or speak to a specific horse in a group situation. Rather, they use their vocalizations to convey simplistic messages of alarm, curiosity, sexual arousal, etc.
The acoustic message is directed at a specific horse based on the horse’s non-verbal body language and not because the horse was called by “name.”
Can Horses Associate A Specific Name With Themselves?
Almost every horse owner would confidently state that their horse knows its name. These owners will site examples of:
- Their horse coming when called by their name
- Pricking their ears when spoken to by their name
- Stopping an activity when addressed by their name
Liberty trainers working with more than one horse will often capitalize on this ability. For example, they may ask 3 horses to stand and then call “so-and-so” to perform a solo liberty trick.
When reviewing the anecdotal reports of horse owners and watching liberty demonstrations featuring multiple horses, it becomes apparent that horses can and do associate a word (i.e., their name) with themselves.
What Does A Name Mean To A Horse?
For humans, their name is inextricably linked with their self-identity. To a human, the concept of “self” is a dynamic process that develops and evolves in response to internal and external processes.
A name is, in essence, a label or descriptor given to an individual; it is an essential part of linking “self” to humanity while retaining the critical elements of individuality and uniqueness.
A name can shape how people perceive themselves and how others interact with them. In people who struggle with dysmorphia or feelings of self-alienation, reclamation of personal identity in the form of a name is an essential step in their growth process. For example, a person undergoing gender reassignment may choose to change their name to reflect their “new” gender.
It is virtually impossible to research whether horses have the same understanding and interpretation of personal names as humans do. However, the lack of a spoken language amongst horses would indicate that horses do not possess the same name-linked identity that people operate in.
A Horse’s Name Is A Training Cue
If a personal name is not equated to the horse’s self-identity, what does a name mean to a horse?
No studies have investigated what a name means to a horse; however, in my experience as a liberty trainer and the experience of other trainers, a name is similar to a “focus” cue.
The meaning of a horse’s name is best described as:
A means of alerting a specific horse to pay attention because something is going to happen.
- Tonto, come
- Red, here’s your food
- Fern, standstill
This reasoning explains why a horse reacts when its name is spoken directly to it and doesn’t react when it is talked about. Even if its name repeatedly features in the conversation, the horse is unlikely to respond unless addressed directly.
Signs Your Horse Recognizes Their Name
A horse who recognizes its name will respond when addressed by name. These cues may be subtle or more overt; they include:
- Coming when called
- Pricking their ears and shifting their bodies to better pay attention to what their handler is doing
- Nickering or whinnying when spoken to
- Tipping their ear(s) to listen to their handler, rider, and owner
Horses are capable of forming life-long bonds and can even choose 1 or 2 best friends. Some horses pick a human to be their best friend. When a horse responds to “its” human, it is unclear whether it responds to “its” humans’ non-verbal communications or to its name.
However, owners can confidently assume that their horse knows its name if:
- It consistently responds to different people using its name.
- They perform in a liberty act that requires them to pay attention to or disregard specific commands based on which horse’s name precedes the instruction.
How To Teach Your Horse Their Name?
Teaching a horse their name is based on two clear principles:
Intentionality In Teaching A Horse To Recognize Their Name
When teaching your horse that their name is important and relevant (it’s not just more meaningless human noise), you should only use it when there is an expected outcome.
An alternative way of explaining this concept: Only call or speak to your horse by name when you want their attention and are prepared to do whatever you need to do to get their attention.
The most effective way to teach name recognition is to start in a quiet arena, stable, or paddock with your horse wearing a headcollar and lead-rein or lunge line. Say your horse’s name; reward them with a scratch or favorite food treat if they pay attention to you.
If your horse ignores you, repeat their name and jiggle the lead rope until they look at you. Once they’re paying attention to you, stop shaking the lead, remove pressure and reward your horse with a scratch and a treat.
Repeat the process until your horse reliably turns to look at you and pays attention when spoken to by name.
Consistency Is The Key To Long-Term Name Recognition
The second rule of teaching your horse their name is consistency. Always ensure that you have the time, energy, and patience to wait for the desired outcome when doing name training.
An owner that does name training one day but is happy to let their horse ignore its name on another day is guaranteed to fail in their efforts to teach their horse its name.
Set Your Horse Up For Success: Choosing The Best Horse Name
Short names with hard consonants like “T” and “D” are easier for a horse to distinguish and thus learn than long, complicated names. A horse named Civil Défense is unlikely to recognize its name, whereas a horse named Dan or Teddy should be able to identify and thus learn its name more easily.
According to the different breed registries naming rules, show names are the legal names assigned to horses. Many owners voluntarily choose to give their horse a fancy show name AND a more practical stable name.
However, these show names are often obscure, long, and unwieldy; thus, horses are given stable names that are short, easy to pronounce, and learn.
Not all horses know their names; however, they can be taught to associate a specific name with themselves. Horses do not equate a personal name with their self-identity as humans do; instead, they use it as a “focus” or “pay attention” command.