Horses Can Be Innovators, Especially When Well Groomed, Study Finds

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Horses tend to be goal-driven innovators around urgent needs involving food and comfort, but they conceive the greatest variety of innovations when opportunities to play and develop comfort behaviors present themselves, report Researchers.

Horses tend to be the most innovative when kept in the right conditions, the study team reported in the open access journal. PLOS ONE.

Researchers Konstanze Krueger, Laureen Esch and Richard Byrne said the debate persists over whether animals develop innovative solutions primarily in response to their needs, or whether they innovate more when basic needs are met and the possibility to develop a new behavior is offered.

In their study, they identified 746 cases of “unusual” behavior in equines by contacting owners and custodians directly, and through a website. They also searched for videos on the internet platforms YouTube and Facebook.

The trio investigated several aspects of observed or recorded innovative behavior, including whether differences in need or opportunity for innovation were reflected in different types of innovation.

They also examined the repeat frequencies of innovative behavior, as well as the role of gender, age and breed type, and the possible influence of management factors such as housing conditions, access roughage, access to pasture and social contact.

Owners of horses, mules and donkeys who exhibited innovative behaviors were invited to complete a questionnaire. Researchers have received so many reports of equines opening doors or barriers that a more specific questionnaire on this specific behavior has been developed.

The authors collected 632 reports, which described or described 1011 innovative behaviors. Of these reports, 254 were from the general questionnaire, 269 from the door opening questionnaire, and 109 from the videos.

The animals included 427 horses, 3 mules and 4 donkeys.

Three independent observers – a teacher and two with a bachelor’s degree in equine science – rated the 1011 behaviors described as “new” and agreed 89% of the time. The contentious cases – there were 265 in all – were excluded.

The study team found that the number of different types of innovation and the frequency with which specific innovations were displayed were not affected by individual characteristics (gender, age, breed or species of equine).

“Few types of innovation in escape and foraging contexts have been observed,” they said, “while comfort, play, and social contexts have prompted the greatest variety of innovations.

“We also found a greater number of different types of innovations in horses kept in groups rather than in individual dwellings, and with unlimited access rather than restricted access to pasture and fodder.”

Animals with unlimited contact with others tended to repeat innovative new behaviors more often (typically more than 20 times) than those kept with limited contact (typically between 11 and 20 times).

Looking at their overall results, the study team suggested that equines produce targeted innovations and repeat the behavior at high frequencies in response to urgent needs for food and free movement, or when kept under conditions. of social conflict.

“However, equines conceive the greatest variety of innovations when the opportunity to play and develop a comfortable behavior presents itself and when they are kept in good condition.”

Discussing their findings, the authors said their study found an interesting disconnect between the frequency of repeating innovative behaviors and the number of different types of innovation presented. The former potentially indicates innovation in response to a need, while the latter indicates innovation resulting from an opportunity.

“Equines exhibited a narrow range of seemingly targeted innovations and repeated them with high frequency in circumstances of need, such as escape and foraging and when management was restricted or imposed in conflict.

“Conversely, equines exhibited a greater number of types of innovation when they had the opportunity to display behaviors related to comfort, play or social behavior, and when they were kept in conditions free and low-conflict management.

“It remains to be seen whether this variety of innovative behaviors occurs in favorable environments in other species. “

Krueger and Esch are at Nuertingen-Geislingen University in Nürtingen, Germany; Byrne is at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Krueger K, Esch L, Byrne R (2021) Need or opportunity? A study of innovations in equines. PLoS ONE 16 (9): e0257730. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257730

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.


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