Do Horses Know Their Names?
Intelligent and highly trainable, horses have a different understanding of words than we do. The ability of horses to respond to verbal and visual cues has been crucial in domesticating and training these animals.
Horses definitely respond to their names, but whether they actually understand the words, is a different matter.
It’s no question that horses respond well to commands and learn through repetition, consistency and positive reinforcement.
Below, I’ll address some of the most common questions related to horses recognizing names and words, and whether it’s bad to change a horse’s name.
Can Horses Understand Words?
In the wild, horses rely mostly on body language to communicate, but sounds (e.g. whinnying, snorting, squeals, groaning, nickering, etc.) are also crucial in their communication patterns.
Therefore, horses do rely on verbal cues in their relationship with us too. But it’s a different sort of understanding of the words we communicate to them.
Horses hone in more on the pitch, intensity, and pace of words, and can even recognize emotion from the tone of your voice. They don’t necessarily understand the meaning of words, however.
That said horses respond well to short-syllable words or verbal prompts, but these need to have a certain emotional charge too.
It’s not accidental then that horses have evolved to respond much better to certain words than others.
Short, up to two or three-syllable commands like ‘Woah’, ‘No’, ‘Walk’, ‘Easy’, ‘Back’ seem to work best with horses.
Besides verbal cues, I mentioned how horses will react well to visual cues like body language and hand gestures.
In fact, a study showed that horses even recognize symbols and communicate preferences through symbols. In the study, horses were trained to show their blanketing preference by choosing between a ‘no change’, a ‘blanket on’ and a ‘blanket off’ symbol.
To help their learning, heat and cold challenges were made to help learning and help horses understand the meaning behind the symbol.
Scientists tested the horses’ understanding under different weather conditions. In cold weather horses choose to be blanketed, while in warm weather, they choose to stay without a blanket. Therefore, the choices they made were weather dependent and not random.
From these, we can conclude that horses understand verbal and visual cues, which explains their high trainability.
Can Horses Learn Their Own Names?
Horses can be trained to respond and come to a name. But once again this isn’t necessarily happening because a horse understands it’s being called by a name.
It’s more that it responds to that very verbal cue interpreting it as a command to go to its owner, for example.
Just like with dogs, horses respond very well to positive reinforcement whether those are in the form of treats or scratches behind their ears, making them that much easier to train.
You can teach a horse to come when called by its name by using treats or feed. And just like with training dogs, it takes time, repetition and consistency to get results.
So, don’t worry if you don’t get it right the first time, horses need their commands repeated over the course of multiple sessions to learn a given command.
And remember, the fewer and shorter words, the better. And don’t hold back of visual cues (e.g., hand gestures, body posture, etc.) either.
Is It Bad to Change the Name of a Horse?
When it comes to it, it’s actually a good thing that horses don’t get attached to words or confer meaning exclusively to words.
This essentially allows you to change a horse’s name and still be able to teach it to react to the new name the same way it did to their old name (e.g. come when called).
Horses don’t get attached to words and rely instead on cues like the tone of the voice, the pace or pitch, which means that changing their name will not affect them.
Therefore, it doesn’t matter if you rename your horse or change the name of a horse who had a previous owner – horses aren’t picky like that.
So, unless you’re superstitious, I see no reason why you couldn’t change your horse’s name should you want to.
Can Horses Recognize Their Owner?
Horses are not only intelligent, they’re also loyal and they will recognize and remember an owner who has been good to them.
Horses form long-term bonds even with their horse companions and can remember them even after longer absences.
Because they’re herd animals, horses will get attached not only to other members of their herd, but to their owners as well. Horses have the ability to remember their faces and voices.
Horses will also show affection to each other and towards their owners.
For example, horses touching noses and blowing into each other’s nostrils is a sign of affection. Likewise, grooming other horses or whining at one another are also signs of affection.
A horse that will come to you when called, follows you around or is relaxed in your presence means they like your company. Licking you or resting their heads on your shoulder are also signs of affection.
If you treat your horse well, spend a lot of time with them, groom them, and form a bond through training and other activities, then you can rest assured your horse will recognize you, even after a longer absence.
Now that you have a better understanding of how horses communicate and how we can communicate with them, words in themselves may not seem as important as other factors.
While horses can be trained to respond to their names, it’s not the name itself that becomes important but the tone, emotional charge, and the pitch of your voice.
Horses are flight animals, so they tend to be jumpy and stressed. Communicating with them in a calm, low-pitched, steady and natural voice can soothe them and help create the emotional bond I discussed above.
Even if horses may not understand the words and sentences you speak, they understand more than enough from the tone of your voice, so don’t stop speaking to your horse!