iPads for Horses? Touch-Screen Technology in Equine Research

iPads for Horses? Touch-Screen Technology in Equine Research

Touch-screen computers could be changing the way scientists carry out equine research—most of all, taking out any risk of human influence in equine decision-making and actions.

Photo: Courtesy Dr. Masaki Tomonaga

You walk into the barn at 10 p.m. for night check, expecting everyone to be sound asleep or munching on hay. But no! There’s your show horse on his tablet. He’s gotten good at this game—he just earned another point, and another carrot.

Is this some a science fiction scenario? Believe it or not, it’s closer to reality than you might think. Japanese researchers have developed and tested touch-screen technology for horses, in which the four-legged players really do earn “points” and hear a noise when they make the right choice with their muzzles on the screen. They also get an automatically distributed carrot.

However, this is not just some elaborate high-tech new stable toy. Touch-screen computers could be changing the way scientists carry out equine research—most of all, taking out any risk of human influence in equine decision-making and actions.

Clever Hans was a famous horse of the early 19th century that appeared to be able to count and calculate, but we now know he was reacting to unconscious behavioral cues made by the trainer,” said Masaki Tomonaga, PhD, associate professor in the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute’s Language and Intelligence Section, in Aichi, Japan.

“This sensitivity to behavioral/social cues in horses itself should be examined more from the perspective of contemporary comparative cognitive science, but we should carefully avoid such inappropriate responses,” he said. “One of the best ways is to use computer-controlled systems.”

Using the touch-screen system that Tomonaga and colleagues have already used successfully in chimpanzees, the team tested three ponies’ abilities to discriminate shapes and sizes. They also investigated what’s important to horses in making distinctions between one shape and another.

Each pony stood before a 42-inch LCD touch-screen computer monitor that displayed two choices. If the pony chose the “right” size or shape (one he was previously trained to recognize) with his nose, the computer registered the right response and rewarded the pony. The reward was a signal (a sound) followed by the automatic distribution of a carrot into a bowl under the screen. 

The researchers tested size discrimination by having the ponies choose between two sizes of black circles. The difference between the sizes varied from very similar to obviously different.

To test shape discrimination, the ponies had to choose among eight geometric shapes—specifically, large letters. They started with just two choices (X and O) and gradually moved to choosing between X and other letters (X always being the wrong choice) and then other combinations. The researchers evaluated the accuracy of the ponies’ responses for the 28 possible pairs of letters.

Humans and chimpanzees also participated in the experiment, for the sake of comparison in the ability to discriminate between shapes and sizes, the researchers said.

The researchers found that the horses learned how to use the monitors—and get their carrots—very quickly, Tomonaga said. And the equipment was well adapted to them, aside from one minor issue.

“Sometimes even when the pony did not touch the screen with her mouth, the screen ‘detected’ a touch response,” he said. “After careful examination, we recognized that the saliva was causing a wet area and that the screen was recognizing that as a touch. So we had to wipe the screen with a cloth every two or three minutes.”

They also found that ponies had more difficulty than chimpanzees and humans in choosing the right-sized circle when the sizes were similar, said Tomonaga. The closer the two circles were in size, the higher their error rate compared to the other species. This could be related to poorer eyesight when viewing the screen, he said.

However, like humans and chimpanzees, horses relied more on diameter than area when detecting the size differences of circles, he said.

As far as shape difference is concerned, the ponies’ performance didn’t vary much from that of chimpanzees and humans, Tomanaga said. Still, there were a few trends regarding the kinds of angles and shapes that were specific to the species, he said. For example, ponies had a harder time distinguishing “closed” shapes—like O or D, or squares and triangles.

In future studies, Tomonaga said computer screens will allow researchers to get more “into the mind” of the horse, helping us see what he sees as he watches videos, for example. Above all, the greatest benefit of the computer screen is the control of the experiment that takes the human out of the equation.

“Using PCs, we can strictly manipulate the stimuli for the horse experiments, such as size, color, brightness, and we can easily modify the testing task in reaction to the achievement levels for each horse,” Tomonaga said. “Of course, we can collect ‘objective’ data. It is not necessary to write down the results on the notebook for every task; the computer can do that.”

The study, “A horse's eye view: size and shape discrimination compared with other mammals,” was published in Biology Letters

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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