Celeste and Harvey doing the learning experiment.

Celeste and Harvey doing the learning experiment.

It’s been a tumultuous few months here at the Royal Agricultural College in England! We’ve been doing a lot of interesting lectures, looking at nutrition, exercise physiology and my favourite – behaviour.

Our professor, Dr. Andrew Hemmings, has a PhD in equine behaviour and a great way of getting us interested in some pretty in-depth and scientific research. One of my favourite topics to date has been equine learning theory. It’s something I never really thought of in the horse, but of course any parent or teacher will know that we do lots of research in how people learn.

Assessing equine learning capabilities can be hard, and many experiments are fraught with difficulties in standardising all the variables across a population of different horses. Even just sourcing the horses can be difficult, as they all have had different training and sometimes kept on different yards. To help us understand equine behaviour experiments, Dr. Hemmings set us up with an interesting task- a discrimination reversal test to do on our own horses.

Discrimination reversal experiments are used routinely in behaviour experiments to examine how behaviour is affected by environmental cues and how flexible the horse is in their behaviour patterns. The test involved us showing two laminated letter size cards to the horses, one with a cross and the other with a equilateral triangle.

Horses can be quite inquisitive, and through using their natural instinct to sniff new objects, we rewarded them with a sugar-free polo mint every time they sniffed the cross. Harvey was quite good at this, only making a few mistakes by touching the triangle, before selecting the cross 10 consecutive times. We then switched it up – we rewarded them every time they selected the triangle instead and we recorded how many errors the horse made before switching over to the triangle for 10 consecutive times. Harvey was the lowest scoring horse out of our class, making only 2 mistakes!

From the little research of this type in horses, we know that they may have difficulties reversing learned behaviours. Take the cribber for example, it may be next to impossible for them to stop cribbing despite any owner intervention. I’m sure the horse’s personality has a lot to do with it. Harvey is a ‘pleaser’, he loves to get things right and is very keen for any rewards. He’s also very alert and aware of his surroundings, which is great when we’re doing a tight roll-back to an oxer in a jump off, but not so great when we’re going on a hack! This little experiment also showed me how flexible he is in his learning. It’s not a proven science, but it does fit in with his nature under saddle.

It’s been really interesting to get hands-on and do a bit of equine research in my MSc! I have a few other projects coming up: a few nutrition practical sessions analysing different feeds and a really exciting project in the pipeline involving DNA and elite show jumpers awaiting approval from the powers that be in my English university, so that’s a subject for another blog, but stay tuned – I’m about to dive headlong into some really exciting research!

Until next time,

Céleste and Harvey