Group, Pasture Living Might Improve Horses’ Learning Ability

Horses that live in group pasture settings showed an increased ability to learn human cues, regardless of their relationship to the person.
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group of horses in pasture
Horses that live in group pasture settings for at least 8 months of the year showed improved test results. | Photo: iStock
Results from a new study show horses living at pasture with other horses are better at following human-guided cues than those living in stalls or paddocks, regardless of their relationship with the human giving those clues.

The findings suggest horses might learn to understand humans’ pointing gestures over time, but that good welfare, husbandry, and mental stimulation can strongly affect their learning ability, said Océane Liehrmann, PhD candidate at the University of Turku’s Department of Biology, in Finland.

“The most important result from our study is that horses living in groups and in bigger fields/pastures followed the pointing more often than the horses living alone in a smaller paddock,” she said. “Social stimulation and interactions with other horses may positively influence the development of their social skills and potentially extend to their ability to communicate with humans.”

What’s More Important for Learning Skills: Living Environment or Relationship to Handler?

Curious about how horses’ living environment and relationship to the handler might affect their ability to follow human pointing gestures, Liehrmann and her fellow researchers used social media to recruit 52 volunteer owners and their 57 leisure horses across 26 private farms in southern Finland.

“Horses possess remarkable abilities, such as their capacity to discern human emotions and their exceptional aptitude for recognizing familiar individuals, even when disguised,” she said. “These qualities make horses an excellent subject for investigating the nuances of human familiarity.”

The selected study horses—29 mares, 27 geldings, and one stallion, ages 2 to 26 years old—represented mixed breeds and had at least enough training to walk safely on a lead line in a familiar environment, she said.

For at least eight months a year, 25 of the study horses lived in groups of at least three, 12 lived in pairs with one other horse, and 20 lived alone. Fifteen lived in paddocks, 27 lived in pastures, and the other 15 lived mostly in paddocks but had access to pasture up to six months a year.

“Housing conditions for horses present a genuine challenge and are the subject of vigorous debates within the equestrian community,” Liehrmann explained. “Recognizing this, I sought to examine how a horse’s environment can influence its behavior toward humans.”

The Pointing Test: Which Bucket to Choose?

All the horses first underwent a training phase in which they learned they could find carrots inside a covered bucket. Then, they were individually led into a familiar arena, where they found two covered buckets placed 1.5 meters (5 feet) apart with a handler standing in between.

For 28 of the horses, the handler was a human they already knew well, she said. For the remaining 29 horses, the handler was one of four humans with previous experience ground training horses, but whom the horses had never seen.

Both test buckets contained a carrot, Liehrmann said. During each test, the handler would randomly take one step toward only one of the buckets, look at it, and point to it. The team tested 56 horses 10 times, with the handler never pointing to a bucket more than twice in a row.

The researchers considered a horse’s choice correct if, in less than one minute, they placed their noses within 10 cm of the pointed-toward bucket, she said.

Familiar Versus Unfamiliar Handlers

When horses were guided by handlers they knew, they successfully followed the pointing cues 72% of the time, Liehrmann said.

Unexpectedly, she said, that success rate did not differ significantly when the handler was an unknown human, with a success rate of 65%.

“It is possible that the horses quickly associated the presence of the human during the test with the food reward, thereby eliminating the potential stress or fear associated with interacting with a stranger,” she explained.

Social Environments, Living Conditions, and Age: Strong Influences on Performance

By contrast, social environments had a significant impact on success rates, Liehrmann said. Overall, horses living in groups had an 82% success rate, compared to 63% for those living alone. The horses living in pairs fared even worse, with a success rate of only 57%, she added. That might be because interactions with multiple horses are more complex and might increase social cognitive skills and learning ability, she explained.

Living conditions also impacted the results, said Liehrmann. Those living in pastures had a 79% success rate in the pointing tests compared to 64% for those living part-time in paddocks and pasture and 62% for those living in small paddocks. Appropriate living conditions that respect horses’ ethological/ecological needs to graze, roam, and make their own decisions about their activities probably encourage cognitive stimulation, she said.

“To me, what is different from the life in paddock or stall is that when in big pasture, horses can really choose their activities,” she explained. “So if they want to go in the shade to avoid insects or rain they can, or they can decide to go to the back of the pasture because it’s cooler, or they’ll go to the tree line later because they want to eat something different or because the water is nearby. All these little things are stimulating; they are in control of their time activity budget. In a small paddock everything is just there and they just wait for something to happen, which can promote depression and boredom.”

Age was a highly significant factor, she added. The youngest horses had an average success rate of 47% in the tests, compared to 86% in the oldest horse, aged 26.

“Older horses may excel at responding to human cues simply due to their increased experience,” Liehrmann told The Horse. “With age, they have likely encountered a wider range of human behaviors and interactions, allowing them to develop a better understanding of human communicative signals.”

Sex, meanwhile, had no bearing on results, with mares and males performing equally well, she said.

Stimulating Horses’ Minds for Better Learning Skills

Liehrmann said these findings highlight the importance of ensuring good mental stimulation for domestic horses.

“While it is important to acknowledge that mental stimulation is not the sole determining factor in the success or behavior of horses, it does underscore the significance of providing them with such stimulation,” she said.

“If your horses live in small paddocks or stalls and can’t interact with other horses, it could be a good idea to provide them with toys, food enrichment, scratching poles … to prevent boredom and challenge their brain when you are not with them.”

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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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