Horses can do math…sort of

German researchers have discovered just how good with numbers your horse is, and it's probably better than you thought.

A study from Germany suggests your horse is better with numbers than you might have thought.

Researchers at the University of Gottingen trained three Shetland ponies to select images that matched a specific visual prompt. “First they learned to walk up to a learning device and press a button,” says Vivian Gabor, DVM. “They were reinforced for each approach to the experimental apparatus and then little by little for touching one of the buttons.”

Close up of a horse' face, as seen from the very front.
Numerical skills might not have any obvious place in the average horse’s job description, but knowing horses are capable of it can provide a new appreciation of their cognitive abilities

For the next stage of learning, a computer screen on the device showed a stimulus image in the center, with two other images below, one of which matched the stimulus. Every time the pony touched the button that matched the stimulus, he received a few concentrate pellets through a tube. For the stimulus and options, the researchers used symbols the ponies had not seen before to ensure they were truly matching images to earn the reward, not just selecting a familiar symbol.

Once the ponies had mastered this, the researchers ran the same test but used different quantities of the same image. For instance, a stimulus of two dots would be shown, with two image choices below: one with two dots and one with three. If the ponies picked the two dots to match the sample, they received a reward. The size and arrangement of the items in the images were varied to ensure the ponies were choosing based on number alone and no other visual cues. The final phase of the study used images that were groups of different geometric symbols. Instead of three dots, for instance, the image might be a rhombus, a cross and a triangle.

All three ponies achieved 80 percent accuracy in at least two consecutive training sessions matching images with up to four elements. One pony was able to discern four geometric symbols from five. This, however, doesn’t mean the ponies were “counting,” says Gabor.“Real counting implies that the individual has an idea of an afferent numerical order—three is more than two, seven more than four, 165 more than 121—this we only adjudge to the human species and maybe in a limited way to primates,” says Gabor.

“The capacity the study ponies showed is called ‘subitizing.’ It’s a fast and spontaneous adding of a short number of elements/objects.” She adds that primates and some avian species also have this ability.

This numerical skill might not have any obvious place in the average horse’s job description, but knowing horses are capable of it can provide a new appreciation of their cognitive abilities, says Gabor: “In my opinion it’s important for owners and trainers, the whole horse industry, to know about the sensibility and high capacity of the horse. When we assess horses’ learning capacity in the right way, training could become more efficient and we could ensure the welfare of the horse.”

Reference: “Shetland ponies (Equus caballus) show quantity discrimination in a matching-to-sample design,” Animal Cognition, May 2014 

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #443.

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