Straight from the Horse's Mouth: Project Aims to Interpret a Whinny

You always knew exactly what Mr. Ed was thinking. Television's most famous talking horse spoke his mind in plain English.

But what about poor Barbaro, this year's Kentucky Derby winner that shattered his right hind leg in the Preakness Stakes. Vets would love to be able to understand what Barbaro and other injured horses have to say.

Someday humans may get a glimpse into these equine emotions.

Scientists with the Equine Vocalization Project are working to analyze what comes out of the typical horse's mouth to interpret how a whinny communicates stress. More so than many animal noises, a horse's whinny uses many frequencies.

"The quest now is to determine if horses can utilize this varying frequency to produce specific vocal expressions," explains David Browning of the University of Rhode Island. "If so, you might be able to get a sense of their physical condition by their vocalizations."

Browning and his colleagues have not yet created a Berlitz guide for horses, but preliminary results suggest there are at least some leads to follow. The findings were presented this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Providence.

Acoustic analysis suggests a whinny has two elements: a constant tone with varied harmonics that increase as the animal becomes agitated; and a variation in frequency that may be associated with communication or expression.

When stallions fight, for example, their whinnies degenerate to an uncontrolled high-pitched scream, Browning said. But when calm, their whinnies seem rich and variable. "The whinny is not a threatening sound, but the question is, 'What is it for?’"

Browning's team has also studied the brays of donkeys, which seems to have little control over what they say. "When they bray, they just let it rip," Browning said.

Up next: three species of zebras, which should prove interesting. Browning said one brays like a donkey, another whinnies like a horse, and one barks like a dog.