Horses may well have a finely tuned flight response, but in some cases they can show a significant urge to explore, according to researchers.
Researchers in Poland, writing in the journal Animals, have described their research into the exploratory behaviours of Konik horses.
Konik horses were selected for the experiment because they exhibit many of the behaviours typical of primitive horses.
Ewa Jastrzębska and her colleagues said the behaviour of horses had evolved to ensure survival in emergency situations.
Their behaviour is determined mainly by their instincts, which can include avoidance or flight as well as curiosity and the urge to explore.
“Exploratory behaviours can provide information about food, shelter, a new escape route, or a convenient place to raise offspring,” they said.
“However, this may come at the cost of a possible predator attack, isolation from the group, or injury in an accident in unknown territory.”
The five-phase preliminary study was carried out on 19 Konik horses divided into two groups — one stabled and the other kept in a free-range system. All had been trained under saddle, but none had been ridden for at least a year.
The various experimental phases involved scoring the horses on their exploratory behaviours.
Two of the phases involved the approach of a human unknown to the horses, one in which the person was passive and the other in which they were active, touching and stroking the horse.
The third phase involved exposing the horse to an unknown object — a large orange ball.
The fourth phase involved attempting to lead the horses over a blue tarpaulin fixed to the ground.
The final stage involved an assessment of social isolation — their reaction to being led away from the rest of their herd.
The study team found that Konik horses showed the urge to explore, although their behavioural responses are dependent on the individual and the type of stimulus.
In many cases, the sex of the horse and the way in which it was kept influenced their exploratory behaviour, with geldings more curious, as were the free-range horses.
In some cases there was a significant urge to explore, they noted.
Curiosity can outweigh fear, they said, but the balance varies between individual horses.
The study team comprised Jastrzębska and Joanna Sadowska, with the University of Warmia and Mazury in Olsztyn; and Elżbieta Wnuk-Pawlak, Monika Różańska-Boczula and Iwona Janczarek, with the University of Life Sciences in Lublin.
Jastrzebska, E.; Sadowska, J.; Wnuk-Pawlak, E.; RóżańskaBoczula, M; Janczarek, I.
Exploratory Behaviours of Primitive Horses Based on Konik: A Preliminary Study. Animals 2021, 11, 796. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11030796