Horses with stable vices like weaving and cribbing may be stressed, but they are not any mentally slower than their less-troubled equine counterparts. According to behaviorists, between 10 and 20 percent of domestic horses exhibit these behaviors, but none of theses is seen in wild horses. These stereotypic behaviors arise during times of chronic stress, such as when horses are limited in the time they can exercise or eat, but a genetic predisposition has also been found.
It has been thought that horses that exhibit stereotypic behaviors are less cognitively flexible and have an overly sensitive area of the brain: the basal ganglia. A study completed by agriculture research agency Agroscope and the University of Neuchâtel used learning tasks to test if horses with stereotypies had basal ganglia dysfunction.
Researcher Dr. Sabrina Briefer Freymond created a four-part test with two reversal leaning tasks to test the hypothesis that horses with stereotypies were cognitively impaired. Horses from the Swiss National Study Farm were used: six horses that cribbed and seven who did not.
The study team, comprised of Briefer Freymond, Alice Ruet, Maurine Grivaz, Camille Fuentes, Klaus Zuberbühler, Iris Bachmann and Elodie Briefer, asked the horses to learn to distinguish between a circle or a cross on a black or white background; one of the symbols had automatic feeders attached to them. Once the horse recognized the right symbol and pushed the right flap, they were rewarded with food.
After six successful attempts, the task was reversed and the symbol that did not reward the horses with food started to. The rethinking needed to solve the puzzle was the most difficult for all of the horses, but they succeeded, showing that both horses that cribbed and those that did not were capable of solving tasks.
Additionally, no differences were detected in heartrate or pulse variability; for this study, horses were allowed to crib when they wanted to. Horses that crib were discovered to be more sensitive to stress and their cribbing allowed them to relieve some of their stress.
The researchers report that their findings show that horses that crib or have other stereotypies are not cognitively impaired. They also concluded that horses that are prevented from cribbing may underperform if they are unable to relieve stress by cribbing.
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