Study: Some Domestic Horses Possibly Too Reliant on Humans

Horses, like dogs and other domesticated animals, can be extremely affectionate and respond to many human cues, such as pointing and gaze directions. In the first study of its kind, French researchers have learned that horses that are too dependent on humans might have lower cognitive skills, leaving them incapable of solving their own problems.

"We hypothesized that horses that are more attentive to humans are dependent on humans' actions for resources such as food to such an extent that domesticated horses are no longer self-sufficient," explained Clémence Lesimple PhD, from the Laboratoire d'Ethologie Animale et Humaine at the Université de Rennes in France.

To test this theory, Lesimple and colleagues used the "chest test," which requires the horse to figure out how to open a wooden chest to obtain a food reward. The team tested 46 riding school horses, each in his own stall, one hour before meal time (to ensure the horses' motivation towards the food).

Each horse had three chances to open the chest, with each attempt preceded by Lesimple demonstrating to the animal how to open the chest. During each attempt, Lesimple remained standing in a neutral position in the stall. Researchers recorded the total time it took each horse to open the chest, as well as any exploration and frustration or excitement behaviors exhibited.

Key findings of the study were that:

  • Only half of the horses successfully opened the chest; and
  • Interest toward the experimenter was associated with failure to perform the task.

The study found a direct correlation between the horses' interest toward the experimenter (noted by gazes and exploration) and the time to complete the task, said Lesimple.

"In fact, horses that were most interested in the experimenter had the most direct, but inappropriate, behaviors toward the chest, frustration behaviors, and failure to open the chest," she explained.

Some of the horses even continued to explore the feed trough where humans normally put their food and made fewer "real" attempts at trying to open the chest (e.g., creeping their nose under the chest lid), she said.

Lesimple added, "These findings suggest that horses with strong attachments to humans could lead to an impairment of problem solving abilities."

This is the first study of its kind, and further studies comparing wild or feral to domestic horses need to be performed, but aren't planned yet, she concluded.

The study, "Do horses expect humans to solve their problems?" appeared in the August 2012 edition of Frontiers in Psychology. The full-length article is available online.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.