am writing a paper in my agricultural ethics class on the treatment of
horses, and one of my discussions deals with the equality of horses to
humans. My roommate and I were debating if horses have the capability to
think through a problem -- something like unlatching a gate. I’m
having trouble finding research on this specific problem. Do you know of
any research that has been done in this area?
All of your questions are fascinating --
they and similar questions are at the heart of a relatively new field of
academic study known as animal cognition. Just how do animals process
information from the environment around them? How complex are their
mental images or conceptualizations of situations? Over the last few
years, the systematic study of animal cognition has become one of the
hot topics in comparative psychology in general. While it’s not easy
to find much scientific research on the horse, there is a little older
work and some that’s fairly recent.
Early work on horse cognitive and learn-ing
abilities included classic studies of perception, simple pattern
discrimination (triangles, squares, circles), maze learning, and memory.
There is a great article published in 1990 by Cindy McCall, PhD, who is
now at Auburn University (Journal of Animal Science Volume 68, pages
75-81). That paper reviews the work with horses up until 1990.
Some of these abilities could be ex-plained
as simple stimulus-response, associative learning. That really requires
very little higher cognitive ability that would fit the definition of
"thinking." So while both horses and humans use those skills
to learn and respond to their environment, the questions remained about
how complexly horses think or understand.
Nonetheless, the simple learning and
perception research is very interesting. Most people find it fun to know
what horses can do and how they compare to people or to pigeons, rats,
dogs, or dolphins.
For example, the research suggests that
in general, horses are very good at many of the simple associative
tasks. You might make an argument that on certain tasks horses are
quicker than people, and can pick up on subtle cueing in ways that
people interpret as "brilliant." Other practical findings have
been that horses learn quicker with positive reinforcement as opposed to
negative reinforcement, and much better with reinforcement than with
One of the best known researchers
working now on cognition specifically in horses is Evelyn Hanngi, PhD,
president of the Equine Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif. (www.equineresearch.org).
Her work goes a bit beyond the simple associative learning abilities to
what might be called a somewhat higher level of cognitive function.
Specifically, some of her work has focused on concept formation in
horses. She has done a number of simple experiments in a few horses
trying to determine whether any horse can demonstrate the ability to
form and apply concepts. She has looked at the simple concept of open
versus filled two-dimensional stimulus objects. The study designs are
The horse is exposed to a stimulus, say
for example a panel depicting two images -- one of an open circle and
one of a filled circle. If, for example, each time the horse touches the
open circle it gets a food treat, and each time it touches the filled
circle, nothing happens, the horse will soon start going immediately to
the open circle and avoiding the filled circle. The stimulus panel is
presented over and over with the images in random left and right order,
and with all sorts of attempts to control for any inadvertent cueing for
the "correct" stimulus.
Once the horse is performing very well
(always touching the "correct" stimulus), he is shown shapes
other than the circle, each with an open and a filled example. So now
there might be an open and a filled square or an open and a filled
triangle. If the horse immediately responds correctly, there is evidence
that the horse understands and has generalized the concept of open vs.
filled to the different shapes. The horse did respond correctly.
In earlier work in California that was
published in 1994 (Journal of Animal Science Volume 72, pages
3080-3087), Sappington and Goldman did a similar experiment in which one
of four horses learned to respond generally to triangular patterns, as
opposed to patterns with right angles or circular edges, both two or
three-dimensional. This suggested that horses can form and use the
concept of triangular shapes.
Still, everything that has been done
scientifically in the horse so far addresses tasks, learning, and
conceptualization at a fairly simple cognitive level, at least by human
standards of thinking. Almost everyone who knows and works with horses
would likely have plenty of anecdotal evidence "demonstrating"
that horses readily do these simple mental tasks and perhaps much more.
The challenge for scientists is to set up experiments to demonstrate the
abilities in a manner that can stand up to scientific scrutiny. And
that’s where we are at the moment with horse thinking.
Case in Point
Your mention of gate unlatching reminds
me of a recent offering to the lab’s collection of stories on great
horse escapes and on clever ponies. We all know horses can learn to open
fairly complex gate or door closures. They diddle around by trial and
error, and sooner or later the latch comes undone and off goes the
occupant. This reward for the effort leads to more persistent diddling
with the latch, and eventually with every barrier latch. The animal
eventually becomes a quick and efficient escape artist.
Recently, a colleague at New Bolton
Center described a variation on gate latch opening that I had to see to
believe. Their aged pony, which has had a lifelong history of clever
escapes, reportedly now opens an electric fence wire gate. He has been
seen grasping the plastic handle in his mouth and stretching the wire
toward the post with just the right little motion of the handle that
undoes the hook from the wire loop. Before the family figured out what
was happening and corrected the situation, this pony would let himself
and his pasture companion out from the paddock to the pasture at will.
In past years, this same pony had
another clever escape. He was regularly seen herding and chasing an
elderly blind horse companion through a wire fence gate to get out from
the paddock to the pasture.
As clever as this pony seems, and as
tempting as it would be to attribute all sorts of higher thought,
planning, and courage to this little fellow, we have to remember that an
experimental psychologist or animal trick trainer could argue that no
higher thought on the part of the animal would be required to train a
horse to do either of these tasks. Simple positive reinforcement-based
operant conditioning (type of learning in which an animal learns to
perform a response to get a reward or gain access to something positive)
would do the trick -- especially for ponies. This would be true even for
a task such as opening the electric fence. Ponies are notoriously clever
at manipulation and operant learning of this type.