Three horses. Four fences. One gate from the paddock to the pasture. And that gate isn’t in the same place it used to be.

Are they going to find the new exit? Are they going to take their time and study it? Go back and forth trying different things? Start out moving fast to check all the options and then slow down to better investigate those options?

The answers are yes, yes, and yes.

Results from a new study by Italian researchers suggest that horses don’t use the same methods to figure out spatial reasoning tasks. They have different ways of figuring things out, and it all has to do with individuality.

“The new frontier of research on animal cognition is not to study if animals are simply capable of solving certain tasks, but how they solve them,” said Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher in the University of Pisa Department of Veterinary Sciences. “And this seems to be linked with individuality and, therefore, personality.

“Our research has proven that, at least for spatial tasks, horses show a certain degree of plasticity in performing the requested task,” he said. “It’s like if you give 10 people the same problem to solve. You’ll get different resolutions to that problem because each person perceives the stimuli, reasons, and acts differently from one other. And this leads to different ways to reach the same goal. Proactive people probably will act quickly, trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible, not considering possible risks or possibility of failure. While reactive people will tend to think before acting, looking the scenario and perceiving as much information as possible. They will act slowly, thus reducing risks and the possibility of failure.”

Baragli and his colleagues devised a “detour” setup using stacks of packaged bedding in a paddock for 26 Standardbred mares. They stacked the packages to make a U-shaped wall that was high enough to block the horse from walking over it, but low enough for the horse to see over it. They had a bucket of food on wheels, attached to a rope, that they could pull from the “inside” of the U to the outside of the U through a small opening between the bedding packages.

The researchers started the experiment with a mare on the inside of the U in front of the bucket. Then they pulled the bucket to the other side of the wall and observed how she figured out how to get to the bucket.

Later, they made the test wall asymmetrical by placing wood panels on one side of the U to extend the “arm,” which increased the time it would take to go around one side compared to the other.

They found that some horses moved very quickly and always in the same direction, regardless of whether the wall extension meant going that direction would take longer. Those horses might represent bold or impulsive personality types (proactive subjects), Baragli said.

Others moved quietly, apparently studying the options, he said. Sometimes they would go right, sometimes left. And in the asymmetrical barrier task, they consistently chose the shortest path. These horses might be shy and reactive, the researchers said.

Then there were those who moved fast when the barrier was symmetrical, sometimes going right, sometimes left. But when the barrier became asymmetrical, they became more studious and took things slowly, figuring out the shortest path (reflective when necessary, cognitive flexibility), Baragli said.

More studies on personality types in relationship to spatial reasoning could help researchers better understand the connection, he added.

Understanding how individual horses think and reason, and what their individual personalities are, could help handlers be aware of their individual needs and strengths, he said. This could have important implications for their performance and welfare, mainly during the beginning of training.

The study, “Consistency and flexibility in solving spatial tasks: different horses show different cognitive styles,” was published in Scientific Reports.