In humans this may seem obvious; if you are not feeling well because your living and working conditions are not pleasant, you may have a tendency to become pessimistic. The question is whether the same goes for horses? French researchers were curious whether horses become more optimistic if their living conditions were closer to their natural needs.
The study was conducted with 34 different horses. One group of horses lived in individual stabling and received three grain or concentrate rations and one hay ration per day. Students rode them six days a week in a variety of activities, including hacks and trail rides. The other group of horses was kept in a group on a field with shelters. This group, too, was occasionally ridden. Before conducting the optimism experiment, the welfare level of each horse was evaluated by the research team using predefined techniques, such as studying the horses’ behaviour (including stereotypes), observing their attitudes and determining their health status (especially with regards to back pain).
The study whether the living conditions of the horses had an effect on positivity was carried out by means of feeding. Initially, two buckets were used for this. All test horses were first trained so that they knew that there was always food in only one of the two buckets, which were spaced apart. Both buckets were always in the same place. Later, the researchers added three more buckets and placed them between the first two buckets. They judged the horse’s optimism by seeing if the horse was looking for food in the new three buckets. The more times the horse bothered to look into the new empty buckets, the more optimistic the researchers found the horse to be.
They found that the horses with lower well-being scores were also the horses that showed the least optimism during the bucket experiment. As well-being levels increased, so did optimism. Just as importantly, these findings were significantly related to where the horses lived and worked. The horses that lived in individual boxes with limited access to food were less likely to investigate the three new buckets. So, in the eyes of the researchers, they showed more pessimistic responses to the cognitive bias tests. The horses kept in more natural conditions had a more optimistic approach to the experiment, so they anticipated positive events in the researchers’ view.
Do you sometimes wonder what a horse’s natural needs are? In 1993, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) established the ‘Five Freedoms’. They base the freedom to exercise natural behaviour on the following four things: sufficient (free) movement, social contact with peers, sufficient fiber-rich food and stabling with sufficient space and light. If you want to know more about this, click here https://e-quine.com/en/challenging-behaviour/the-five-freedoms/