How do you speak to your horse?
Many care givers report speaking to their companion animals using a type of speech commonly referred to as ‘pet-directed speech (PDS)’. PDS is characterized as being exaggerated in tone, high pitched and often repeating words.
PDS is similar to ‘infant-directed speech (IDS)’, the way many parents spontaneously speak to their babies. IDS has been shown to be associated with a positive emotional state, supports the development of relationships and can stimulate learning processes.
We already know that horses are sensitive to human facial gestures and emotional states. How human speech patterns could influence equine behaviour has not previously been examined and the impact of PDS is little understood. A survey conducted on social media revealed that 93% of riders and equine caregivers (n = 845) regularly communicated with their horses using PDS but only 44% thought that their horses were sensitive to its use, leading to an investigation exploring how ‘baby talk’ might influence equine behaviour.
- Twenty Welsh mares (average age = 6.3 + 3.38 years) who had never been exposed to PDS were involved in two experiments to assess their sensitivity and response to PDS.
- In each test, horses were filmed, and behaviours were later scored by an observer with the sound muted to blind the type of language used in each trial.
- In the first test, horses were groomed by an experimenter who spoke to the horses using PDS or more neutral human speech patterns (as would be typical in adult conversations – adult directed speech, or ADS).
- The second test involved the experimenter pointing to a food reward and speaking to the horses either with PDS (n = 10) or ADS (n = 10).
- In each test, the experimenter vocalized the same sentence but used either PDS or ADS.
- When horses were spoken to in PDS while being groomed, they were calmer, demonstrated mirrored grooming gestures and looked more at the experimenter than horses spoken to in neutral speech.
- During the pointing task, horses spoken to in PDS accessed the food reward significantly more often than by chance (p = 0.04) which was not observed in the ADS condition (p = 0.62)
What does this mean?
Horses, in common with some other non-human animals such as dogs, appear sensitive to human speech patterns, notably ‘baby-talk’, or infant-directed speech. This means that speaking to our horses in ‘baby talk’ might be beneficial in supporting positive human-horse interactions, promoting positive communication between the species, and improving overall welfare of all participants during human-horse interactions.
Lansade, L., Trösch, M., Parias, C. et al. (2021) Horses are sensitive to baby talk: pet-directed speech facilitates communication with humans in a pointing task and during grooming. Anim Cogn. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01487-3