An enriched life can produce smarter and less fearful horses, according to researchers.
Scientists with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) explored the effects of temperament and stress on the ability of horses to learn.
A horse’s temperament can change over time, they found.
Horses whose lives were enriched because, for instance, they were exposed to new objects, received toys, ate a varied diet, or made group trips out to a pasture, became less fearful and reacted less strongly to being touched than horses whose lives were less enriched, perhaps through a mundane diet or only solo outings to a paddock.
Furthermore, they found that horses experiencing enriched living conditions were better able to learn complex tasks and demonstrated a higher level of well-being. When they were handled, they were also much less likely to engage in behaviors that could put humans in danger.
The researchers said the ability to learn was a skill put to use every day by horses, from the first time a young foal was handled to the work carried out by top-class competition horses.
Those who work with horses know that learning ability, including memory, varied greatly from one horse to the next.
Some studies have suggested that this variability could be explained by differences in temperament. Others propose that stress may also play a role. For instance, some horses are better performers when conditions are not stressful, but their performance declines when they are under stress.
In their study, the researchers assessed the temperaments of a number of horses using five dimensions of behavior – fearfulness, gregariousness, reaction to human handling, locomotor activity, and reactivity to touch and sound.
Some of the horses were exposed to stress to assess its effects on their learning ability.
Additionally, the influence of the horses’ living conditions was also examined.
They found that if horses were exposed to stressful conditions before being asked to learn something, fearful individuals were always at a disadvantage.
However, under non-stressful conditions, fearful horses performed better on memory tests, which suggested they were more keenly aware of their surroundings. Furthermore, when the task itself was stressful – for example, when negative reinforcement was used – they were also the best performers.
As a result, from the standpoint of learning ability, there were no “good” or “bad” temperaments, the researchers concluded.
They found that fearful horses more easily acquired automatic behaviors, at the expense of strengthening more cognitive responses, which suggested they were less behaviorally flexible.
Other dimensions of temperament, such as gregariousness, locomotor activity, and sensory reactivity, had less of an influence on performance.
The researchers said their findings helped to provide an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of horses with different temperaments in terms of their ability to learn.
It also made it possible to establish new selection criteria that take into account the tasks a horse would perform.
For example, as long as work conditions were familiar, a fearful horse would perform better; whereas a less fearful horse may be a better choice if the animal would be doing work that required learning new tasks under stressful conditions.
It is also possible for trainers to modify their approach depending on the type of horse they are dealing with, by assigning it tasks that are adapted to its temperament.
They said that by enriching a horse’s living conditions, by instituting visits to the pasture, interactions with other horses, and environmental and dietary improvements, owners could increase performance when it came to learning tasks.
The research was funded by the French Institute of Horses and Riding, INRA, and the Centre Region regional government in France.