Humans, chimpanzees, dogs and cats all have self-control. It can be useful to wait for something bigger or better while hunting. For grazers, such as horses, this may be less interesting. After all, there is food everywhere. Still, self-control can be beneficial for all animals. Désirée Brucks, PhD, of the Animal Husbandry, Behaviour, and Welfare Group at the Institute for Animal Breeding and Genetics at the University of Giessen, in Germany, has conducted further research into this.
The waiting game test was used to investigate whether horses have self-control. In this test, the animal is presented with two different treats (one in each hand). If the horse eats one of the treats, the other disappears. Later, the animal is offered both treats, but can only access the less tasty treat. During the test, the waiting time for the tastier treat increases. So the horse has to make a choice: take the less attractive treat, or wait for the other treat to be offered.
52 horses of different breeds took part in the study. On average, the horses in the study waited about 13 seconds to receive the tastier treat and up to about 15 seconds to receive a larger amount of the same treat. There were also horses that immediately took the first treat and two even waited a whole minute for the tastier treat. What appeared to have a major influence on the duration of the wait was the feed management of the horses and their coping mechanism. Horses that had unlimited roughage available during the day were willing to wait longer. Horses that were able to distract their attention from the reward (coping), were also able to resist the temptation longer.
Self-control can be very helpful in stressful situations. An individual with self-control can better adapt to changes in the environment and make better decisions. This could be a useful trait for horses that have to deal a lot with changing venues, competition and training, for example. How much self-control does your horse have?