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Do horses generalise between objects during habituation?

By J. W. Christensen, T. Zharkikh, J. Ladewig

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Habituation to frightening stimuli plays an important role in horse training. To investigate the extent to which horses generalize between different visual objects, 2-year-old stallions were habituated to feeding from a container placed inside a test arena and assigned as TEST (n=12) or REFERENCE horses (n=12). In Experiment 1, TEST horses were habituated to six objects (ball, barrel, board, box, cone, cylinder) presented in sequence in a balanced order. The objects were of similar size but different colour. Each object was placed 0.5 m in front of the feed container, forcing the horses to pass the object to get to the food. TEST horses received as many 2 min exposures to each object as required to meet a habituation criterion. We recorded behavioural reactions to the object, latency to feed, total eating time, and heart rate (HR) during all exposures. There was no significant decrease in initial responses towards a novel object with increasing object number, indicating that habituation was stimulus-specific. REFERENCE horses were exposed to the test arena without objects in the same period, and reactions of TEST and REFERENCE horses were subsequently compared in a fear-test (2 m x 2.5 m rubber mat placed under the feed container, forcing the horses to step on the mat to get food). There were no significant differences between the treatment groups, i.e. previous habituation of TEST horses to six visual objects did not reduce responses in a fear-test involving visual and tactile stimulation. Due to the lack of generalization in Experiment 1, we designed a supplemental experiment (Experiment 2), in which REFERENCE horses were exposed to the same six objects except that object colour was kept constant. We found a significant reduction in response (behaviour and HR) with increasing object number, indicating that horses generalize between similarly coloured objects of varying shape. We conclude that a high degree of object similarity, e.g. identical colouring, appears to be crucial for object generalization in horses.

Date 2008
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 114
Issue 3/4
Pages 509-520
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.03.007
Language English
Author Address Department of Animal Health, Welfare and Nutrition, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, University of Aarhus, P.O. Box 50, 8830 Tjele, Denmark.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal nutrition
  3. Animal physiology
  4. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  5. Feeding
  6. Heart
  7. Heart rate
  8. Horses
  9. Latency
  10. Mammals
  11. peer-reviewed
  12. stimulation
  13. training
  1. peer-reviewed