Stereotypic behavior in horses, like cribbing, weaving or stall walking, has previously been believed to present in horses that experienced a combination of less-than-ideal living conditions and that had a genetic predisposition.
A popular hypothesis stated that animals that took part in stereotypic behaviors are less cognitively flexible and therefore less equipped to deal with stressful situations. It was believed that this lack of flexibility was due to a sensitization of the basal ganglia.
A study published in Springer Nature tested this theory on horses that cribbed by using reversal learning, which has been used as a diagnostic tool for ganglia dysfunction.
The study used four learning tasks in both horses that cribbed and a control group, which did not crib. The number of trials to complete each task was recorded, as was heart rate and heart-rate variability. The horses in the study that cribbed were not prevented from doing so.
No performance differences between the two groups was shown, nor was there a difference in their physiological responses. These results challenge the belief that horses that engage in stereotypic behavior are cognitively impaired. The study team concluded that any cognitive impairment stereotypic horses might display may result from the prevention of their stereotypies.
Read the abstract at Springer Nature.
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