Spatial Reasoning and Laterality Affect Riding Horses' Behavior

"Can't go over it, can't go under it, have to go around it." No, your horse isn't on a bear hunt; he's on a bucket hunt, trying to reach his food around an experimental barrier. Italian equitation science researchers set up this obstacle game to see how horses respond to the next question: "Around it, yeah, but which way?"

Whether horses go right or left around barriers and other kinds of obstacles--called "detour behavior"--appears to be based on spatial reasoning or laterality (side preference), or a combination of the two, according to Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher in the department of physiological sciences at the University of Pisa and primary author of the study. Baragli and his colleagues set up asymmetrical barriers, meaning one side is much longer than the other, to see which behavior is stronger--spatial reasoning or laterality. They switched things up by putting the longer side on the left and other times on the right. Then they tested 10 Italian saddle horses to see if they chose the shortest way around or if they had a preferred side.

(Courtesy Department of Clinical Veterinary Sciences - University of Pisa)

The researchers found that the group was divided. Six of the horses showed a clear side preference to the left (three horses) or to the right (three horses) every time, no matter how long the route. But the other four horses seemed to study the situation and evaluate the distance, choosing the shortest side nearly every time.

Three of the horses that chose the shortest side had originally shown a side preference when faced with symmetrical barriers in a previous study, Baragli said. "This leads us to believe that the horses aren't just choosing the same side every time because that's the side that got them to the food in the first place," he said. "These horses do seem to show behavior that is the result of a decision-making procedure regarding which way is shorter, compared to the other horses that showed lateralized behavior."

The results of the study, which were presented at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on July 31, could help researchers better understand equine behavior when faced with jumping obstacles, according to Baragli. "Both lateralized behavior and spatial reasoning could affect performance when horses cope with hurdles during competitions," he said. However, more research is needed before any practical applications or suggestions can be made.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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