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I've been wondering if my horse understands his name.

By "understand", I mean "does he know I address him in particular if I call his name"?

I'm not really sure how to verify this, but I'm tempted to think the answer is no and therefore it does not make sense to give names to horses other than to make it convenient for humans to refer to them. On the other hand, my cats understand their names and if I call one particular cat, most of the time only the one I call comes running. Therefore, it would not be surprising if horses could learn their name, too.

So please, if anyone could share any personal experiences that either prove or refute it it would be truly helpful to me.

How can I tell whether my horse recognizes his name? Is there any training that can be done to help my horse recognize his name?

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A name is really just a cue for a generic "pay attention" behaviour. In my dogs, the response can range from running towards me, to turning a head towards me, to sometimes just flicking an ear towards me, depending on their activity level at the time. I'd expect to see the same response in a horse.

It's possible that horses sometimes do not develop as strong a response to their names because we do not talk to them as much as we do to a dog or cat, and rely more on physical prompts rather than verbal cues when we train them. They also would not get as many repetitions of the name=reinforcement pairing as an animal that lives in its owner's house, particularly since many horses do not get a lot of positive reinforcement from their owners.

I don't have a horse of my own, but when I was a kid I took riding lessons and I have no doubt that the horses at the riding school knew their names. Sadly for the horses, it wasn't a "pay attention" cue so much as a "keep doing that and I'll punish you" cue. The instructors would yell out a name towards a group of horses, and only the target horse would show a fearful reaction.

  • I agree. On the other hand dogs (and cats) names are most of the time overused and the dog often think it is just part of the ambiant noise... – Cedric H. Jan 24 '14 at 13:06
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    My horses hear their names constantly, but since they are always close together I'm not sure if they know which name refers to which one of them. I think they just interpret any of their names as "Dinner time!" – JohnFx Jan 29 '14 at 1:20
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If your horses name is the sound made, when you have some grain in a can, and swish it around. It should be relatively easy to discover if he knows his name.

Seriously though, as Kaynetoad suggests all naming conventions human, dog, horse or rabbit, all break down to Pavlovian conditioning.

If your horse perks up it's ears and looks for the source of the sound, when called than they know their name AND associate it with pleasant things.

If your teenager, turns up the volume on their music, when called on garbage day, than they know their name AND associate it with unpleasant things.

So there is really two parts to the answer;

  1. Is the association pleasant or unpleasant?

  2. Do you see the associated response when calling by name, without additional stimuli?

Your answers to these questions will allow you to answer your question "How can I tell whether my horse recognizes his name?"

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My horses know their names, as they come to me when I use them, whether I am empty handed or have food. I can spend hours with them and they will be in the paddock with me and when I call them, they will come. They come more to a collection of calls. Their names and/or "Good Girl" and/or "Come". They stop grazing, look at me and mosey on over.

How I trained them, when renaming or keeping the same name, I use a high pitched voice and have treats in my pockets (or in a container). I use cut up apple and carrot. To begin with I hold out the treats and use their name over and over and tell them good girl (or boy, I only have mares atm) and pat them. Tell them they're brave if they're timid. Now I know they don't understand the meaning of the words, but they understand my intent. I include pats, snuggles and kisses. It takes about a week to train a horse to come like that. They remind me a lot of herbivore dogs, but very big and harder to teach tricks, but can be just as loyal and affectionate.

Food and affection are the best motivators for horses and I believe training any animal to come when called. Using repetition and reward so the association with coming to the owner is a pleasant one. Horses become difficult to catch if the owner is bad tempered and curses the animal when they can't catch them easily.

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