Pony (Brain) Power: Free-Roaming Herd Learns To Use Touchscreen For Treats

Free-roaming ponies in Portugal learned to recognize letters on a touchscreen with no encouragement from humans, reports The Horse.

Garannos ponies are an endangered breed with minimal contact with humans, but this did not seem to impact their ability to learn human-made symbols and understand how to use human-made devices.

The ponies were able to differentiate between the letters B, O, V, X and Z, said Clara-Lynn Schubert of the Sorbonne University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering’s Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurosciences, in France. Schubert believes that these results could lead to more in-depth cognitive research and improved equine communication. 

Schubert and a team of other scientists moved an 8-year-old Garranos stallion and four mares, aged 2 to 13, from where they free-roamed to a testing paddock. The male horse was gelded, but maintained stallion behaviors; the oldest mare had lost vision in one eye years prior to the study. 

The researchers placed a 43-inch touchscreen on a portable stand in the paddock, just below the height of the withers. The screen was placed in a three-sided shelter with a chest-high pole the horses could reach over to touch the nearly 6-inch-tall letters on the screen with their noses. 

When the horse made the correct choice, a chime sounded and a piece of carrot went down a tube to a bowl in front of the barrier. If the horse chose the wrong letter, a buzzing noise sounded and no treat was delivered. 

The horses were trained individually, but where the other horses could see. At first just a black spot was shown on the screen and the horse got a carrot reward when they touched it with their nose. The images then changes to the Roman letters B, O, V, X and Z. The horses were then presented with a choice between the spot and the X, then between two letters, with gradually increasing complexity based on how the letters looked. 

The horses, wearing a halter but no lead rope and could leave the area at any time. The horses completed five training sessions of 10 image choices per day; the horses rarely opted to stop before the sessions were over. 

Each of the horses was able to discriminate between the X and the black spot; but only the four mares were able to discriminate between all five letters with an average of 80 percent accuracy. The three youngest horses learned more rapidly than the two older horses.

Read more at The Horse. 

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