Horses Better At Adding Than Some Humans

A study from Germany suggests that horses may be more mathematically inclined than originally thought. Researchers from the University of Gottingen trained three Shetland ponies to choose images that matched a specific visual cue.

First Drs. Vivian Gabor and Martina Gerken taught the ponies to walk up to a device and press a button; they were rewarded each time they approached the device and eventually for pressing one of the buttons.

Next, the ponies were shown a computer screen on the device that had a stimulus image in the center, and two images below it—one of which matched the stimulus. Each time the pony touched the image that matched the stimulus image, he got a treat delivered through a tube. To make sure the ponies weren’t just selecting a familiar symbol, the researchers changed the options on the computer screen each time.

Once the ponies learned this, the scientists ran the same test, but used different quantities of the same image. For example, the stimulus image may show two dots; the options below may show two options: one with two dots and one with three. If the ponies chose the two-dot choice, they got a treat.

The researchers varied the size and arrangement of the images to ensure the ponies were choosing options based on numbers alone and not on other visual cues. The final phase of the study used images that were groupings of different geometric symbols, such as a cross, triangle and rhombus.

All three ponies had an 80 percent accuracy in matching images with at least four elements in at least two training sessions. One pony could tell the difference between four and five geometric symbols.

While proving that a horse’s cognitive abilities may be much higher than previously believed, these finding don’t mean the pony was “counting,” the team says. True counting indicated that the individual had an idea of numerical order. The ponies were subitizing: Quickly and spontaneously adding a short number of objects. Some primates and avian species can do this.

Read more at EQUUS magazine.

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