Outdoor Access, Friends Important For Equine Learning

A study out of Finland has shown that horses living in pastures with other horses for at least eight months of the year are better able to follow cues from humans than horses housed in stalls or paddocks. The horse’s relationship with the human has no bearing on how well the horse could follow the cues. 

Océane Liehrmann, with the University of Turku’s Department of Biology, said that these results suggest that horses can learn to understand what a person pointing means, but husbandry, metal stimulation, and good welfare also affect the horse’s learning ability. Horses that were housed out in groups followed the person’s direction more often than horses living alone in smaller areas. 

Thus, social stimulation and interaction with other horses may influence the development of a horse’s social skills and their ability to communicate with humans. 

To test how a horse’s relationship to a handler and its environment may affect their ability to follow human gestures, Liehrmann and research team used 57 horses living on private farms in Finland. In total, 52 owners participated in the study. 

The horses were between 2 and 26 years old; there were 29 mares, 27 geldings, and one stallion. The horses were of various breeds, but each could walk on a lead safely in a familiar environment. 

For at least 8 months of the year, 25 of the horses lived in groups of three, 12 lived in pairs, and 20 lived alone. Of these, 15 lived in paddocks, 27 in fields, and the rest in paddocks, but with pasture access up to 6 months a year. 

All horses completed a training phase where they learned to find carrots in a covered bucket. They were then lead to a familiar arena, where two covered buckets were set up 5 feet apart, with a human standing between them. Both buckets had a carrot in them. 

For 28 of the horses, the human was someone they knew; for the others, the human was someone the horses had never seen. For each test, the human would take a step toward one bucket, look at it and point to it. The researchers tested 56 of the horses 10 times, with the person never pointing to the same bucket more than twice in a row. 

The team deemed the horse’s choice correct if it moved its muzzle to within 4 inches of the bucket that was pointed to.

The team reported that horses had a familiar human, they followed the cues 72 percent of the time; when the human was not familiar, the horses were correct 65 percent of the time. The food reward may have overcome the possible anxiety associated with strangers, they said. 

In total, the horses living in groups were successful 82 percent of the time; horses that lived alone were correct only 63 percent of the time. Horses that lived in pairs were correct only 57 percent of the time. The researchers report that this may be because horses living in groups have more complex interactions that require an increase in social cognitive skills. 

Horses that lived on pasture were successful in 79 percent of the pointing tests; those living in small paddocks were successful only 62 percent of the time. Liehrmann reports that the horse’s ability to make a decision about their activities, graze and roam most likely encourages mental stimulation in horses. 

Liehrmann said these findings highlight the importance of ensuring good mental stimulation for domestic horses. She recommends that horses kept in stalls receive toys, scratching poles, and other options to keep their brain engaged. 

Read more at The Horse.

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