Can a foal's innate learning ability be determined?

A new foal always brings a lot of enthusiasm and hope for many breeders. They imagine that this might just be the horse that one day will meet their greatest expectations. It is of course wonderful to have such motivating dreams about a new foal. But scientists were curious whether it is really possible, at a very young age, to predict whether the horse has the potential to become a good student. A group of Danish researchers looked at a series of tests that may demonstrate a foal’s learning ability. 

“There is currently no gold standard in foal learning ability testing, but I would like to see what happens,” said Line Pinktrup Ahrendt, PhD, researcher in the animal sciences department at Aarhus University in Denmark. Ahrendt presented her research at the 2014 International Society for Equitation Science conference. 


In her study, Ahrendt and her fellow researchers examined 21 weaned foals (aged 30 to 50 weeks) in four different learning tests: 

  1. A pressure response test. Could the foals learn to yield to pressure building up (up to 7 pounds = ± 3 kg) on their hindquarters. An algometer or other instrument was used to measure the pressure.
  2. A visual discrimination test. Could the foals learn that only one of two buckets, which differed incolour, size and shape, contains food. Could they therefore learn to distinguish between the twobuckets. 
  3. A clicker test. Could the foals learn to make an association between the sound of the clicker and a food reward when touching a certain object.
  4. A spatial reversal test. Could the foals learn to change what they had learned before, from finding food in one bucket to finding food in the other bucket.Sothey had to ‘turn around’ what they had learned before. 

Overall, the foals responded well to the pressure response test, learning over time to yield to less and less pressure, Ahrendt said. The clicker test had fairly good results, with a large variation between the foals. In the visual discrimination test, most foals lost interest, she said. This could be due to the fact that the foals were not (yet) motivated by food rewards, because they did not receive any such rewards and were therefore not used to them. “They just stopped responding and no longer wanted to participate,” she said. “I don’t think they liked the food.” 


At the time of the presentation, the team had not yet evaluated the fourth (spatial reversal) test. Either way, Ahrendt said they were revisiting the tests, due to the lack of motivation for food rewards. “This year we spent a lot of time training the foals with food so they were familiar with the food and they seemed to like it,” she said. Another 45 foals are examined in the renewed tests. 

Although the preliminary results show that the pressure response test and the clicker test worked well to determine a foal’s learning ability, there was no correlation (relationship) between the two tests. In other words, foals that did well in one test did not necessarily do well in the other test, Ahrendt said. 


This can be discouraging, but Ahrendt remains optimistic about finding a way to test learning ability. “I can just see the different forms of learning ability shine through in these tests,” she said.



Leave a Reply