Semi-Feral Ponies ‘Read’ Letters for Treats

The ponies in this research group learned to distinguish between 5 letters and select them on a touch screen.
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feral horses in field
The mares in the group were able to identify between letters, while the male had significant difficulty with the task. | Getty images
A herd of free-roaming ponies in Portugal has learned to recognize letters of the alphabet on a touch-screen computer left accessible to them on a free-will basis.

Distinguishing between the letters O, B, Z, V, and X, the Garranos of northern Portugal—an endangered breed—have shown they understand how to use human-made devices and learn human-made symbols, despite their limited contact with humans.

These findings could pave the way for more in-depth cognitive research and improved communication with horses, including those living in the wild, said Clara-Lynn Schubert, MSc candidate at the Sorbonne University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering’s Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurosciences, in Paris, France.

“The touch-screen system used here opens the window to a range of questions about horse cognition,” she and her fellow researchers stated. “Multiple future directions for studies using this system in horses can be imagined.”

Studying Vision and Perception in Native Portuguese Ponies

Garranos ponies, part of the Iberian horse family, live freely in natural reserves in the mountainous and lake-filled province of Minho in northwestern Portugal, where they benefit from human care and management, including basic handling. Carlos Pereira, PhD, in the Department of Applied Foreign Languages, also at the Sorbonne, believed these semi-feral horses of his native homeland might provide insight into how society and ecology have shaped equine cognition.

To avoid any human influence on such studies, Pereira and Schubert used automated devices in the field to study the horses’ cognitive skills.

The researchers’ first step was confirming these free-ranging animals could see 2D images on a computer screen, they said. As grazing herbivores and prey animals that have evolved a wide-view, lateral vision, horses might lack the ability to recognize flat digital pictures.

Pereira and Schubert teamed up with Tetsuro Matsuzawa, PhD, currently a visiting academic at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, to test the ponies’ capacities to use touch-screen technology. Matsuzawa had already carried out touch-screen cognitive testing in primates, and together, the team built on the original touch-screen research carried out in Japan in 2015 by Masaki Tomonaga, PhD, at Kyoto University.

The researchers brought one 8-year-old Garranos male and his four mares—aged 2 to 13—from their free-roaming environment in Serra d’Arga, Portugal, to a large nearby testing paddock. The male—Boneko—had been castrated for management purposes but continued to behave like a stallion, they said. The oldest mare—Flore—had lost sight in her right eye due to an accident eight years earlier.

The team placed a 43-inch touchscreen (98-by-58 centimeters) on a portable stand that set the center of the screen just below the ponies’ average wither height. They hid the associated computer behind the screen and put the entire setup in a three-wall shelter blocked off by a chest-high wooden pole. There, horses could stretch their necks over the pole to touch the 15-centimeter-tall letters on the screen with their noses. When the horses made the correct choice, the computer triggered a “chime” sound and delivered carrot chunks via a tube into a feeding bowl just in front of the pole. For wrong choices, the computer made a “buzz” sound and did not deliver treats.

The team initially trained the horses individually—but within close viewing distance of the other members of the herd—starting with just a black spot on the screen that triggered carrot rewards when touched before switching to five Roman letters: O, B, Z, V, and X. The team presented the horses with a choice between the spot and the X and then between two letters, gradually increasing the complexity of the choice (based on how similar the letters look).

The horses wore halters during training, but they had no lead rope and could leave the testing area at any time. They performed an average of five training sessions of 10 image-choice trials each, per day, and rarely opted to stop before the end of the training sessions, Schubert said.

Free-Roaming Ponies See 2D Screen Images, Distinguish Letters

All the horses learned to discriminate between the black spot and the X. However, only the four mares discriminated between all five letters with an average accuracy rate of 80%. Even the half-blind mare learned the letter discrimination, although it took longer, Pereira added. And the three youngest horses learned faster than the two older horses in the group.

The researchers do not know why the one male horse had more difficulty learning than the four females. “We tentatively suggest that the male’s difficulties in discrimination learning might be related to his social role as a stallion and protector of his family group …, reducing his attention to the learning task and the apparatus,” they stated in their recent publication. “Similar research with bigger samples (or different groups) could shed further light on the possible sex differences in horse attention and learning.”

The findings are “nothing extraordinary,” said Pereira. “It might make people’s eyes sparkle to think of a horse in front of a computer screen, but people forget that horses—like humans, bees, and other animals—have minds,” he told The Horse. “And if they’d had fingers like chimpanzees, they’d be even more proficient with the touch screen.”

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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