Horses opt for speed over accuracy in food-reward study

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Horse owners are well aware that their animals are on the ball when it comes to food.
Horse owners are well aware that their animals are on the ball when it comes to food.

Horse owners will attest that their animals are pretty smart when it comes to food. Now, Italian scientists have delved into the thought processes and decision-making strategies of horses in their hunt for a piece of carrot.

The study, centred on the University of Pisa, involved 24 horses, half of whom were placed in the control group.

The horses in the experimental group had to find a piece of carrot hidden under one of three overturned buckets after seeing the experimenter hide it, then withdraw, followed by a delay of 10 seconds.

The results were then compared with those of the control group, in which the horses had to find the carrot using only the sense of smell or random attempts.

Dr Paolo Baragli and his colleagues found that the horses in the experimental group were able to remember the location of food hidden by the experimenter after a delay, and that they appeared to understand the meaning of a human having been positioned close to the target.

But they also found that the same horses were capable of changing their decision-making strategy.

As the experiment was repeated, the researchers found that the horses in the experimental group shifted away from the accuracy inferred from the human-given cues. They made more wrong choices but actually found the piece of carrot faster.

“At the beginning, the experimental horses made more correct choices at the first attempt, although they took more time to find the carrot,” the researchers reported in the journal, Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

“Later, the same horses were less accurate but found the carrot in less time.”

This suggested that the value of human cues became less critical, with speed being of essence.

The researchers concluded that horses can choose to use human cues or not, depending on time, cost, experience and reward.

“It seemed, in fact, that the experimental and control group had aligned their behaviour as the trials proceeded,” the said.

The researchers continued: “Despite this similarity, in the second half of the trials, the experimental group tended to first approach the bucket where they had found the carrot in the immediately preceding trial.

“Our findings indicate that horses are capable of remembering the location of food hidden by the experimenter after a delay, by using the human positioned close to the target as valuable information.

“The same horses are also capable of changing their decision-making strategy by shifting from the accuracy inferred from human given cues to speed. Therefore, horses are able to decide whether or not to use human given-cues, depending on a speed-accuracy trade-off.”

Baragli was joined in the research by Paola Lovrovich and Claudio Sighieri

Following human-given cues or not? Horses (Equus caballus) get smarter and change strategy in a delayed three choice task.
Paola Lovrovich, Claudio Sighieri and Paolo Baragli
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2015.02.017

The abstract can be read here

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