Enriched Environment Leads To Innovative Equines

A German study has shown that an enriched stable environment can enhance a horse’s problem-solving abilities. The study, completed by Drs. Laureen Esch, Caroline Wöhr, Michael Erhard and Konstanze Krüger, used 16 horses to determine if they could find an innovative solution to gain access to feed in a new feeder.

The scientists broke down the study further to try to determine if the horse’s behavior was affected by age, sex, stress, laterality or task-related behavior.  The feeder was a hollow tube in which feed was placed. A rod stuck out the bottom of the feeder; when the rod was rotated, a small amount of feed poured into the trough below it.

Each horse had 38 hours to try to figure out how the feeder worked and empty it. Four of the 16 horses were able to complete the task. The scientists noted that these horses were not necessarily the smartest, but they had developed their abilities because of exposure to an enriched environment.

Six other horses were able to use the feeder, but only got a small amount of feed, making them chance problem solvers that could not repeatedly replicate the procedure needed to get the feed. Six horses were not able to work the feeder at all.

The horse’s age, size and stress level did not influence their problem-solving abilities. Interestingly, although laterality didn’t statistically influence a horse’s behavior, all four of the horses that solved the feeder question showed significant left-motor preferences.

Half of the problem solvers were male and half were female; four of the six chance problem solvers were male. Both the horses that solved the feeder question and the chance problem-solvers were more active and tenacious. They also had elevated baseline values of fecal stress hormone concentrations, which may be the result of repeated stimulation in an enriched environment, the scientists said. This suggests that an individual horse’s history may affect his problem-solving abilities.

The researchers concluded that the elevated stress hormones and the preference for the left eye and forelimb in the horses that solved the problem may be associated with emotionality; these horses may have more brain power for solving innovative tasks. They also determined that an enriched environment may contribute to the mental welfare of equines.

Read the full study here.

Read more at HorseTalk.

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