HOW YOUR HORSE SEES THE WORLD— AND ASKS FOR HELP
A recent study examined how horses approach difficult tasks both with and without people present.
When your horse’s ears are pointed in different directions, he may be asking you for help. That’s the conclusion of Italian researchers who recently completed an experiment investigating how horses approach difficult tasks with and without people present.
For their study, researchers at the University of Naples selected 30 horses. To start, each horse was led to a table on which a carrot or apple had been placed; human handlers stood on opposite sides of the table, motionless and facing each other. After three such trials, during which the horses learned the treat was easily reachable, each horse was led to the table under two different experimental conditions: with the treat out of reach with humans present, and with the treat out of reach with no humans present. The horses were tested under each condition and their behavior was filmed for analysis.
Of particular interest to the researchers was which direction each horse’s ears were pointing, an indication of where his attention was focused. “Land predators have the advantage of stereoscopic vision to concentrate in a small visual field, whereas prey (such as horses) need to monitor a large spatial field looking for predators, and thus they have broad spatial visual field,” says Biagio D’Aniello, PhD. “This explains why a dog moves his entire head (or eyes) to link two targets in a lateral field, while horses do not have to. This is also why humans cannot easily determine where the gaze of a horse is focused---only their ears can give us information about attention behavior in horses.”
If a horse focuses on one target, both of his ear cups will be pointed in that direction, a process known as selective attention. In contrast, visual differential attention (VDA) describes focus on two stimuli, which is indicated by pointing the ears in different directions. “In our test one relevant stimulus was
the food and the second was the person because the horse identifies the person as a possible resource,” he says. “Horses are aware that humans can bring food.”
The researchers found that horses displayed more frustration-related behavior ---pawing or head tossing ---when the treat was out of reach, suggesting they were looking for a solution
to the problem. The likelihood a horse would display VDA behavior seemed to be influenced by the presence or absence of humans. The horses exhibited VDA most often when the food was out of reach and humans were present, says D’Aniello.
On the other hand, he notes, “when the people were out of the test [area] the VDA behavior lowered
drastically. This is what led us to hypothesize that this behavior was specifically directed to the person. We think that the horses performing the visual differential attention were trying to ask for support in solving the problem from humans.”
D’Aniello says that more study is needed to confirm this finding, but “this kind of behavior could be very
interesting from a practical point of view. For instance, during training having correct information about where the attention of horses is directed could be crucial.”
Reference: “Could the visual differential attention be a referential gesture? A study on horses (Equus caballus) on the impossible task paradigm,” Animals, July 2018