Ability of horses to show self-control shown in German study - petsitterbank

Ability of horses to show self-control shown in German study

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Horses are able to exert self control to wait for a better food reward, research in Germany has shown.

Self-control is defined as the ability to forgo immediate satisfaction in favor of better pay-offs in the future. It has been extensively studied, revealing enormous variation between and within species.

“Horses are interesting in this regard because as a grazing species they are expected to show low self-control, whereas its social complexity might be linked to high self-control abilities,” Désirée Brucks and her fellow researchers at the University of Giessen wrote in the newspaper, Frontiers in Psychology.

Self-control in horses, they suggest, may also be a key factor in training, or when coping with potentially stressful husbandry conditions.

Brucks was joined by Anna Härterich and Uta König von Borstel to assess the self-control abilities of horses in a simplified delay-of-gratification test in a farm setting.

Fifty-two horses were familiar with the test procedure and the concept of gaining access to the high-value reward only if the low-value reward is not consumed.

In the first phase, experimenters familiar with the horses stood just out of reach of the horses, with a low-value food reward in one hand (a small offering of hay) and a high-value one in the other. They then reached out to put the low-value food reward within reach of the horse.

The experimenter would only reach in with the high-quality reward if the horse refrained from consuming the hay for the required length of time. The time the horse was required to wait was stepped out gradually to 60 seconds in a series of tests.

If the horse failed to wait the required time, it got to eat the modest hay offering but did not get offered the high-value treat.

All horses were tested in two test phases: with the experimenters’ eyes visible, during which they gazed directly at the horse; and with their eyes invisible (the experimenter wore sunglasses).

Twenty horses (41.67%) successfully waited up to the maximum delay stage of 60 seconds, while all horses performed worse in the test phase with sunglasses.

In a second experiment, the researchers improved the test procedure, with one experimenter per horse. They tested 30 additional horses in a quality and quantity experiment, in which they had to choose between a food reward versus a delayed bigger food reward.

Two horses successfully waited for the maximum 60 seconds. The study team found that horses tolerated higher delays if they were first tested in the quantity condition.

On a group level, the horses tolerated a maximum delay of 36.08 seconds, plus or minus 22.85 seconds.

Individual variation in self-control was consistently explained by hay-feeding management in both experiments, as horses used to have free access to hay reached higher delay stages than horses with restricted access to hay.

“If food is constantly available without any shortages, it might be valued differently and more risky foraging decisions for delayed options could be made,” the study team suggested.

“We found that horses were able to wait for a delayed reward of better quality and quantity up to 60 seconds in a delay of gratification paradigm,” the researchers concluded. They found no correlations between the behavioral traits assessed by the owners and the horses’ success in the test.

Horses that engaged in many distraction behaviors, such as pawing at the ground or looking away, were more successful than horses that exhibited only a few of these behaviors during the waiting time.

“All these behavioral patterns are related to directing the attention away from the available low-value reward.”

The authors said they observed great individual variation in self-control abilities amongst the horses.

“Some horses did not manage to pass the two-second delay, whilst others successfully waited for 60 seconds.”

Older horses tended to reach higher delays in the first experiment, but this effect was not replicated in the second experiment.

Sex did not explain individual differences, nor did the horses’ housing conditions (group-living vs. individual boxes).

The study team found that the horse owners’ predictions about their horses’ self-control abilities were not correlated with the actual performance in the test.

Individual self-control abilities were also not correlated with other behavioral traits that were rated by the owners, such as trainability, patience, food motivation, and reactions in stressful situations.

Further investigations into links between inhibitory control and trainability, as well as general coping capacities, are warranted, they said.

“Considering that horses’ foraging behavior requires only little self-control as resources are evenly distributed with slowly changing quality, and they face no delays to access the resource, we would have expected horses to show rather poor self-control in such a food- based delay of gratification paradigm.

“Contrary to our hypothesis, horses exhibited rather good self-control abilities on a group level.”

The researchers said their study provides the first data on self-control abilities in a grazing species, broadening knowledge about underlying evolutionary forces driving the evolution of self-control across animal species.

“While we found no link between self-control and behavioral traits of horses outside of the test context, we hope that our study gives rise to further research questions related to horse welfare, such as understanding the role of self-control in coping behaviors and general trainability.”

Brucks D, Härterich A and König von Borstel U (2022) Horses wait for more and better rewards in a delay of gratification paradigm. Forehead. Psychol. 13:954472. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.954472

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

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