Friday, November 1, 2013

Blessi Thinks Outside the Box

I have always been fascinated by research on horse cognition.  On the one hand, the studies give us fresh insight into how horses think.  On the other hand, I believe sometimes the studies of horse behavior are limited in design and that the breed(s) of horse used may skew the results.  For example, Lloyd et al in their study "Horse personality: Variation between breeds" lumped the trait "intelligence" into horse reactivity.  In my opinion, the typical Icelandic horse approach to novel situations tends to contradict this association since Icelandics think "quietly."  You can read my summary and speculations about this study at:

This is the type of box (hose reel) that Blessi used
in the experiment he designed
C. Lesimple, C. Sankey, M. Richards, and M. Hausberger published the study "Do Horses Expect Humans to Solve Their Problems" on August 24, 2012 in  Frontiers in Psychology.   The researchers hypothesized that domestication of animals has resulted in decreased cognitive skills such problem solving.  In other words domesticated animals such as dogs and horses  rely more on humans to solve their problems than their wild counterparts.  (Note earlier research indicated that dogs who spent more time looking at their owners during the experiment were less successful in figuring out the problem presented to them.) 

To test their hypothesis, Lesimple et al built a special wooden box with an extended lid that was easily opened by horses. The box was filled with the horses' normal food and the test was run about an hour before feeding time.  Using a halter and lead line, the experimenter led the horse to the box, demonstrated how the box worked, removed the lead line, and in a neutral position observed what the horse did.  The test consisted of three trials of three minutes each.

The researchers tested 46 horses, about evenly divided between geldings and mares, ages from 5 to 23, representing 8 breeds.

Behaviors were categorized between exploratory (sniffing and playing with box lid) and excitement/frustration (head shaking and startling).  Half the horses were successful in opening the box over the 9 minutes of the combined trials (which means half the horses failed to open the box).   Horses that were most interested in the experimenter as indicated by exploratory behaviors and gazes toward the human had significantly less success in opening the box.    The researchers concluded that "...a strong attachment to humans could lead to an impairment of these [problem solving] abilities. "

I always wanted to run this experiment with Icelandics.  First I am sure that well over 50% of the Icelandics would be able to open the box containing their dinner.  Second, I believe that they would demonstrate both interest in their humans as well as successful problem solving abilities.  Running this experiment with Blessi has been on my list of future fun activities as soon as I could get around to building a similar box.

Well Blessi took the entire matter out of my hands and ran his own experiment.  I had him tied so I could give him a winter trim.  If not nuzzling me and investigating my jacket, he worked on playing with the buckets, coiled hose, hanging horse toy in the adjacent stall, and anything else he could reach.  One of the objects within his reach was a closed box containing a hose reel.  Quick as a Chomsky* thought, Blessi lifted the lid of the hose reel box so he could check out the contents.  How did he know that this was a "box?"  How did he figure out that there was a "lid" to this box especially since the lid was set flush to the side of the box?  And how did he know exactly how to flip open the box without any exploratory behavior when, to the best of my knowledge, he had never seen anybody open the box?  And, more importantly why did he open the box?  

Luckily, I had my camera so I was able to record Blessi's behavior.  To ensure that Blessi repeated the behavior, I let him observe me place a pear in the hose reel box.  Forget about 3 trials of 3 minutes.  He opened the box so quickly that I did not have time to get the camera in position and start filming.  It took me several tries to capture this behavior and the pear got a little chewed up in the process.  Sometimes the pear, which was loosely balanced on the coiled hose, would roll off the hose before Blessi could grab it.  He knew to scout for the fallen fruit on the ground beside and behind the box. (Hum, I wonder if Blessi's next "experiment" will involve Newton's laws of motion and universal gravitation?)

Oh, the laughter you hear in the background is the father of a young rider who was tacking up her horse for a lesson.  He was exceedingly entertained by Blessi's antics.  In fact he came up to me later to ask if I was ever going to breed my "mare."  I had to explain that, sadly, Blessi was a gelding so he wouldn't be producing any offspring.  However, Blessi's  antics have convinced the gentleman that he wants to get Icelandics for his family when they are in a financial position to have a farm.

Blessi says, "Take that pear and shove it in your black box, Skinner**!"

*Chomsky was extremely critical of Skinner's operant conditioning theory.
** Skinnerian theory does not consider internal thoughts or motivations to explain behavior only external inputs as causes of behavior.  The mind is conceptualized as a "black box."


1 comment:

  1. I'm always entertained by stories of Blessi's adventures.