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Attributing attention: the use of human-given cues by domestic horses (Equus caballus)

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Abstract

Recent research has shown that domestic dogs are particularly good at determining the focus of human attention, often outperforming chimpanzees and hand-reared wolves. It has been suggested that the close evolutionary relationship between humans and dogs has led to the development of this ability; however, very few other domestic species have been studied. We tested the ability of 36 domestic horses to discriminate between an attentive and inattentive person in determining whom to approach for food. The cues provided were body orientation, head orientation or whether the experimenters’ eyes were open or closed. A fourth, mixed condition was included where the attentive person stood with their body facing away from the subjects but their head turned towards the subject while the inattentive person stood with their body facing the subject but their head turned away. Horses chose the attentive person significantly more often using the body cue, head cue, and eye cue but not the mixed cue. This result suggests that domestic horses are highly sensitive to human attentional cues, including gaze. The possible role of evolutionary and environmental factors in the development of this ability is discussed.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to the members of staff at The Sussex Horse Rescue Trust and the owners of the horses at the Woodingdean livery yard for their support and willingness to facilitate this project. We also thank Ben Colwell and Laura Hazelton who contributed to this study in the course of their final year undergraduate research projects and Graeme Shannon and James McMichen for their help with data collection. The study complies with the United Kingdom Home Office regulations concerning animal research and welfare as well as the University of Sussex regulations on the use of animals. This work is supported by a quota studentship from the BBSRC (to L.P., supervised by K.M.).

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Correspondence to Leanne Proops.

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Proops, L., McComb, K. Attributing attention: the use of human-given cues by domestic horses (Equus caballus). Anim Cogn 13, 197–205 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-009-0257-5

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