Magic Mustang Tamer

What are Horses Thinking: My Reading

The evidence is in. This validates several elements of our training protocols. We are careful to train in familiar locations, often home pens. We use buddy horses going into new areas when we have appropriate calm animals. I want to test their observation that horses don’t sniff the same things twice.

In-text Citation: (Whishaw & Burke, 2020)

Complete Citation: Whishaw, I. Q., & Burke, C. J. (2020). What Are They Thinking? Scientific Horsemanship and the Mind of the Horse. In Equine Science. IntechOpen.

Filename: Whishaw and Burke 2020, What were they thinking.pdf

Keywords: minimizing anxiety, novel environments, sniff-look-loop, fear

Date read and why read: 29 May 2022

Question asked or hypothesis stated:

  • What is the horse’s umwelt? 
  • What are the factors influencing how the horse will occupy a novel environment?

Methods/Approach: Multiple Experiments

18 horses, of varying ages and sex, were released into a riding arena (alone, in pairs, or under saddle) and filmed for 30 min. Trained reining horses for whom the arena was not novel were used under saddle. Undersaddle, they were asked to leave the gate, then allowed to move as they wished. To test their memories, some of the riding horses, familiar with the arena were exposed to a novel feature along the arena wall and evaluated for response to it. To evaluate sniffing behaviors, objects sniffed were analyzed. The objects were varied by size, the number of times presented, and type of objects.

Significant Definitions:

  1. Home base: the location where the animal spends most of its time in a novel environment.
  2. Spatial gradient: proximity of the location to living quarters. This correlates with a spectrum of anxiety. The home base is usually the location available most proximate to living quarters, which is the least anxiety-provoking space available. Added stress shifts all parts of the gradient.
  3. Exploratory gradient: Authors do not clearly define, but relate it to the animal’s renewed sensitivity to objects when it returns to an area after leaving (daily renewal of novelty)
  4. Sniff-look-loop: the sequence of behaviors typical for animals moving away from home base into novel area.

Key Concepts (map):

Anxiety and Novel Environments

Behavior at home base is characteristic. Homebase is typically at the gate, but will be anywhere there is another horse. When two horses are both free, they tend to remain at the gate.

Leaving the home base involves a stereotypical sequence of behaviors. The horse ventures away from home base slowly, it will often lower its head and sniff the ground, and at the apex of the excursion, it will look at and point its ears toward the distant end of the arena. Then it will put one ear back toward the home base before returning to the home base.

Horses tended to return to home base with their ears back. Horses leave the home base at a slower pace than they return.

All horses alerted to a novel feature of a familiar environment, indicating they had a memory of expected features of the environment, and violations of that expectation raised their anxiety.

Horses rarely sniff a novel object twice in one day (even after a delay) unless it is droppings, indicating they remember the objects. But all objects (placed in new locations?)  may be treated as novel every day or after the animal leaves and returns to the environment. Droppings may be investigated several times.

Larger objects were more likely to elicit avoidance rather than investigation. Distance from the gate increased the probability of avoidance. Repeated exposure to the large novel objects did not reduce avoidance responses.

This supports lowering anxiety by staying in familiar locations, having buddy horses, and allowing the horse to investigate novel objects.

Heightened interest in horse droppings might reflect a concern that the area may be unsafe because of the presence of another animal.

Many traditional training practices would minimize anxiety based on the principles supported by this study.

Resulting Questions:

  1. Do the droppings actually cause anxiety or is it some other kind of interest?
  2. Is there a gender difference in the likelihood of wanting to investigate droppings a second time?
  3. Would droppings of a familiar animal be more or less interesting than droppings of a different animal?
  4. What are the gender effects of sniffing?
  5. How would trailering away to a new environment affect home base? 
  6. Does the trailer become the familiar environment?
  7. What happens when there is no familiar environment?

Other Notes

This is a chapter from a book and, although it has an abstract, it seems to summarize a lot of experiments.

In our library, but not editable.

One thought on “What are Horses Thinking: My Reading

  1. Seneca B.

    Interesting, but the observations seem very predictable for someone who has spent a significant time with horses. I am very interested in the large amount of information obtained by sniffing and esp. gender effects and such, so I will point my investigatory readings that way from here. Thank you!

Leave a Reply