Horses think outside the box, even when stabled

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Some horses showed extraordinary abilities to remove their halters or untie the knots in halter ropes, some threw feed buckets at their owners’ feet, and some battered trees until it was raining apples.
Image by ykaiavu

As every owner knows, horses do the darndest things. Whether it’s opening the gate, breaking into the feed-room, or finding ways to steal their friends’ food, horses certainly appear to find their own, often very creative, ways to solve their day-to-day problems. But do they come up with these ideas out of necessity, or do they become more creative when their needs are already well fulfilled?

To try to answer this question, scientists from the University of Nürtingen-Geislingen in Germany and St Andrews University in Scotland launched a crowdsourcing study in which they asked owners of horses, donkeys and mules for reports of “unusual” behaviour.

The response was tremendous and brought together more than 1000 examples of innovative behaviour, that is to say, behaviour not shown by horses in the natural environment, or natural behaviour applied in a new context. These were categorised as “need” if the objective was to fulfill a basic need, such as feeding or free movement, and “opportunity” if the objective was related to play or comfort. Trained or copied behaviour was discounted.

The results revealed some fascinating insights. There were a few behaviours related to needs that some horses repeated very frequently, for example opening gates to escape or to reach feed sources. Some showed extraordinary abilities to remove their halters or untie the knots in halter ropes, some threw feed buckets at their owners’ feet, and some battered trees until it was raining apples.

However, really creative innovative behaviour was shown when all the basic needs were well covered. This included a very wide range of behaviours, such things as stacking their bedding to sleep more comfortably, using sticks to scratch their tummies, playing tag with a stick, brushing each other, turning lights on and off, opening doors and locks without leaving the stable, and removing bandages and rugs, sometimes with highly complicated clasps and fittings.

They found that if owners want their horses to come up with innovative ideas, it’s important to make sure the environment is right. A more restrictive environment will encourage targeted problem solving, while a more generous environment, where all basic needs are met, will encourage more creative thinking.

Krueger K, Esch L, Byrne R (2021) Need or opportunity? A study of innovations in equids. PLoS ONE 16(9): e0257730. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257730

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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