A re­cent study ex­am­ined how horses ap­proach dif­fi­cult tasks both with and with­out peo­ple present.

EQUUS - - Medical Front -

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

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