Annemarie van der Toorn

10 March 2020

No Comments

Home Scientific

Nature or Nurture?

Within a few hours, a newborn foal knows how to stand and walk. If you ask this same foal to follow you in a halter for the first time a few weeks later, he has no idea what you are asking of him. After practicing a number of times, he has learned to do this. How is it possible that the foal does not need training to learn how to stand or walk, but he does when it comes to following you in a halter?


This has to do with innate behaviour and acquired behaviour, also called nature and nurture. If you look at the science that deals with animal behavior, you actually have two directions: ethology and psychology. Ethology is primarily concerned with innate behavior; instinct. Psychology is more concerned with the development of (acquired) behaviour. For years, nature and nurture have been a hotly debated topic, where one party thought that all behaviour was determined by predisposition (nature) and the other party believed that all behaviour was influenced by education (nurture). These days, we know that nature and nurture are inextricably linked, you cannot see one without the other.


But what is the difference between innate and acquired behaviour? In general, you could say that the difference is determined by how different the new behaviour is from what the animal already knows naturally. As we mentioned above, inborn behaviour has to do with the instinct of a horse. On Wikipedia, instinct is described as a species-specific and hereditary pattern of behaviour, in which experience or learning does not play a role. Instinctive behaviour is behaviour that a foal can perform well almost immediately after birth. Think of drinking, standing, running and neighing. But you always see foals in the beginning, when they try to stand and take their first wobbly steps. By learning, almost literally through trial and error, the foal becomes better at these behaviours. You see instinctive behaviours in situations where the right response is of vital importance. Imagine a horse being attacked by a tiger; if he does not give the correct response (= fleeing), he will be eaten. Because it is about survival, the instinctive behaviour of an animal is difficult to change.


Learned behaviour is behaviour that is more influenced by the environment, and it takes longer for this to become established within the horse. Learning can be described as a change in behaviour as a result of experience. There are different ways to learn new behaviours. A commonly used method is conditioning. Here, behaviour comes about under certain conditions (for example rewarding or correcting) and it becomes a habit. Within conditioning you have the classic and operant conditioning methods. A well-known example of classical conditioning is Pavlov’s dog, who learned to drool at the sound of a bell. Would you like to learn more about this? Then read our article about conditioning. Habituation is the simplest form of learning. The horse gets used to a certain stimulus, so that his reaction to this stimulus is reduced. For example, when a young horse has a rider on its back for the first time. In the beginning, the horse may react sensitively, but after a while he gets used to this feeling and he will no longer respond to it.


The behaviour you see within a domestic horse is the result of what he has inherited genetically from his ancestors, and what he has learned from his environment. It is important to know that you cannot change the genetic package of a horse. Certain behavioural traits that have to do with those genetics make certain things difficult or impossible to learn for a horse. For example, not every horse will be suited for top level sport, because it simply does not have the talent for this. It is true that the environment influences the extent to which a horse develops certain behaviours. Suppose you have two clones: one horse grows up at a children’s farm and the other horse at a sports stable. One horse will develop a different set of skills than the other, while having the exact same genetic background. For example, the horse at the petting zoo will not be surprised by screaming children, while the horse at the sports stable will be startled because it rarely encounters children. On the other hand, the ‘sport horse’ may be able to follow the principles of a piaffe, while the ‘children’s farm horse’ does not go beyond walking and trotting. What a horse can do and knows is highly dependent on the environment in which it grows up and the things to which it is exposed during its lifetime. Nature and nurture are therefore closely linked.

Leave a Reply