feeding horse an apple

Horses might pass up one treat to wait for a “better” one. Researchers in Germany said this kind of self-control might help horses cope with new environments and training situations.

“Individuals with better self-control can better adapt to changing environments and optimize their decision-making,” said Désirée Brucks, PhD, of the Animal Husbandry, Behavior, and Welfare Group at the University of Giessen’s Institute for Animal Breeding and Genetics, in Germany.

“This aspect is particularly interesting for horses that face many different challenging situations that require quick adaptations (such as training, moving to novel stables, participation in horse shows, etc.) and, thus, might be an underlying factor that gives rise to the different coping styles that we can observe in horses,” Brucks said.

Self-Control in Social Groups

Humans, chimpanzees, dogs, and cats all show the ability to have self-control, Brucks said. That might be because, as hunters, it can be useful to hold out and wait for something bigger or better, she explained.

A grazing animal—such as a horse–might not need much self-control, she said. They can usually eat what’s in front of them and still eat what they find later.

However, self-control could be useful in a social group, Brucks said. For example, horses might get better hay if they wait for a dominant horse to leave the hay bale, instead of eating muddy, trampled-on hay farther away.

Still, many owners believe their horses—especially those that are food-motivated—have little capacity to wait, she said.

A New Self-Control Test for Horses (and Other Grazers)

To find out whether horses can exercise self-control, Brucks and her colleagues Anna Härterich, MSc, and Uta König von Borstel, PhD, developed a waiting-game test, adapted for grazing animals.

In the test, a horse stands freely behind a non-electric barrier, while a human presents two different treats in each hand. If the horse eats one of the treats, the human removes the other. Later, the human holds both treats but only presents one hand in front of the horse’s nose, keeping the preferred treat visible but out of reach.

Gradually, the human starts holding the more attractive treat—either a better-tasting treat or a greater amount of the same treat—for a longer amount of time before making it available to the horse. Thus, the horse must make a choice: Take the less-attractive treat immediately, or wait for the other treat to be presented?

Brucks and her colleagues trained the owners or riders of 52 horses of varying breeds to test their horses. To minimize the horses being influenced by the people’s gaze, handlers wore sunglasses.

Some Show Patience, Others Can’t Wait

On average, study horses waited up to around 13 seconds to get the tastier treat and up to about 15 seconds to get a greater quantity of the same treat, Brucks said.

On an individual basis, the horses showed varied reactions, she said. Some were impulsive and refused to wait even two seconds. But some of the horses consistently waited 30 or 40 seconds for the better reward. And two of them waited a full 60 seconds.

“We were surprised by the high delays that many horses were willing to wait for,” said Brucks. “Based on horses’ feeding ecology, we would have expected them to give up waiting much earlier, simply because self-control is not needed in a food context for horses: They can find food almost anywhere and usually do not need to wait for something better to come along.”

In general, the horses that waited the longest were the ones that tended to exhibit coping behaviors, such as pawing the ground or nibbling the sides of the stall, she said. Additionally, horses that lived on freely available forage waited longer than those fed restricted amounts at set intervals throughout the day. “Horses that could distract their attention away from the reward were able to resist the temptation for longer,” she explained.

Surpassing Expectations

The horses’ ability to exercise self-control was unrelated to their owners’ and riders’ expectations, said Brucks. “Many of the students that performed the test with their horses for the study said that they were very surprised to see how their horses behaved in the test,” she said.

It could be useful for owners and riders to try the experiment at home, she added. “Performing such a simple delay of gratification test with the own horse is interesting in itself because it reveals a completely new side of the horse that horse owners apparently have not encountered before,” Brucks told The Horse.

“Considering that many previous studies have shown that horse owners are able to correctly assess personality and predict reactions in behavioral tests, this result was indeed surprising,” she explained. “But this shows that horse behavior and cognitive performance in novel behavioral tests is not always in line with the owners’ experiences from daily training.”

The Benefits of Self-Control in Horses

Self-control is a useful trait for horses, especially in stressful situations, said Brucks. They might be less prone to crib or perform other behaviors because they are less impulsive.

Self-control might also be helpful in the horse-human relationship, she said. Because horses could be less reactive in stressful situations—waiting more patiently—people might consider them easier to handle. They could also have longer attention spans during training.

“Individuals with good self-control are potentially more successful in making optimal foraging decisions, in juggling through social life without much conflict, quickly learning novel and forgetting unwanted behaviors during training, and quickly adapt to changing environments,” she said. “Consequently, being able to wait for something better instead of immediately succumbing to temptations is valuable in various aspects of life.”

Studying self-control in horses could lead to worthwhile applications in the practical horse world, possibly revealing which horses have better general coping capacities and more flexibility in their behavior, she said.

The study, Horses wait for more and better rewards in a delay of gratification paradigm, first appeared in Fronters in Psychology, in July, 2022.