Investigation Behaviour

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Investigation Behaviour Project

InvestigationMuch has been speculated about the intelligence of horses, such as the feigned arithmetic proficiency of "Clever Hans." Nevertheless, their cognitive abilities--the processing, encoding, storage, retrieval, and application of information--have rarely been investigated under controlled conditions or in the field, and previous research has led to ambiguous results. To help resolve this controversy we propose that sociality is a key feature for the understanding of cognitive capacities in horses, and may be affected by ecologic, evolutionary and geographic constrains. During the last four years the team of the principal investigator concentrated on social cognition in domestic horses, while Paolo Baragli´s team, University of Pisa, Italy, has focused on the differences in cognitive abilities between feral and domestic horses. The combined results suggest that cognitive capacities in horses are shaped by ecological, environmental and geographical factors, as well as through the process of domestication. Daniel Rubenstein, Princeton University, and his team have conducted several studies on the ecology of behaviour in horses and zebras in a variety of geographical environments. Their comparative approach and analyses will help with the design and analysis of the intended project. In addition, we have had the opportunity to observe, test and compare two distinct horse populations living in differing geographic environments, feral horses in Italy and wild (Przewalski) horses in Hungary. The Italian feral horses roam free in the Abruzzi mountains, where predation pressure by wolves and bears has remained high for over two hundred years. The Przewalski horses are part of a conservation project from European Zoos (managed by Waltraut Zimmermann from the Zoo Cologne, Germany) and roam free in the Hortobagy plains in Hungary. We will investigate how patterns of sociality, feeding and drinking habits, day and night rhythms are affected by differences in predation pressure, and finally the history and current status of human animal interactions. Thereafter a novel object test with neutral, fear eliciting and food promising objects, which has been developed by the team of the principal investigator and applied to domestic horses, will be applied to the respective horses in their social groups in their natural environment. We hypothesise that environment and domestication have shaped the cognitive capacities of horses. Thus we predict that Przewalski horses, which have never been domesticated, will react more fearfully and aggressively towards novel objects, whereas feral horses and domestic horses will investigate novel objects with greater curiosity. In comparison, wild Przewalski horses may demonstrate more pronounced personalities and thus greater differences in individual responses towards different objects than horses with a history of domestication. Additionally, since feral and domestic horses have been selected for their social tolerance resulting from horse management practices in past decades, they are likely to be better skilled in their social abilities then their more wild kin. Finally, since both domestic and feral horses show a long history of domestication overall comparisons with Przewalski horses in similar social setting will provide insight into the relative importance of human mediated and wild environments on behavior and cognition.


  • Long term behaviour observation after confrontation with several fearsome objects under continuous video recording. Repetition once a month over two years.
  • Biochemical analysis of hormone excretion in faeces for all taxa.