Young foals show similar learning abilities to their older counterparts, study reveals

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The learning abilities of young of foals should not be underestimated, the findings of an American study suggest.

Researchers Elena Martinez de Andino and Sue McDonnell found that the abilities of younger foals, aged six weeks to three months, were similar to those aged three to five months when it came to operant learning.

The 26 Shetland-type pony foals, aged six to 20 weeks, used in the study underwent operant conditioning, a form of learning in which a person or animal comes to understand that its behavior has a consequence – in this case receiving a rewarding scratch.

The foals each underwent a brief learning trial in which they were taught to touch a painted striped rock with their muzzle in return for receiving a scratch – a form of positive reinforcement.

Previous handling of the foals had been limited to a single 30-minute session of gentle handling alongside their dam and harem group at between the ages of two and four weeks.

The pair of researchers from the Havemeyer Equine Behavior Lab at the New Bolton Center, part of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, reported that all the foals in the study were able to learn the task and that learning efficiency was similar between the two age groups.

The female foals, which made up half the number in the study, showed greater learning efficiency, the authors reported in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The 26 foals represented offspring from a total of seven sire lines. Foals from some of those sire lines showed greater learning efficiency than the others.

Seventeen of the foals (65%) met the criterion for retention when re-evaluated between seven and 26 days later.

The results, they said, confirmed that young foals can efficiently learn simple operant tasks.

“To our knowledge, this is the first report of systematic study of operant conditioning in foals this young,” the pair said.

“Subsequent work in our lab using operant discrimination learning indicates that foals as young as one day learned with similar efficiency.”

The researchers said the demonstrated ability of young foals to efficiently learn with simple operant procedures similar to those commonly used in training juvenile and adult horses meant that this type of training can and likely should be recommended as a productive positive form of early handling.

“Basic operant training with specific management goals, for example standing for grooming, veterinary and routine health care procedures, coming to a handler from pasture, or loading for transport, would likely be a more productive and less problematic human-animal interaction than simply playing with or cuddling a foal.”

They said that playing and cuddling-type interactions were not recommended as they carried the risk of over-bonding to humans, potentially leading to problem behaviors.

Operant training with specific practical goals would serve to introduce young foals to taking meaningful direction from human handlers.

The findings, they said, raised several questions around the best pace of training, the various types of reinforcement, and the best age for introducing specific tasks to foals.

They said it was common for there to be “non-responders” in research, where subjects showed little or no interest in the task at hand. “It is notable that all 26 foals in this work participated in the operant task in this paradigm, resulting in zero non-responders.

“When working with adult horses in learning studies, we have encountered higher rates of non-responders for any given training paradigm. It was our subjective impression that foals may be generally more interested than older horses in operant tasks.

“If this impression holds true, it may be another reason to introduce young foals to organized training.”

Martinez de Andino, Elena V., McDonnell, Sue M.,
Evaluation of operant learning in young foals using target training.
Applied Animal Behaviour Science

The study abstract can be read here

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