Cattle cognition

I’m very pleased to announce that MSc Johanna Stenfelt’s MSc project has resulted in two articles, which are now both published and available golder OA. Johanna joined our project on cattle cognition in the summer 2021, and worked with us on the project’s two experiments. The first experiment was the focus of Johanna’s MSc thesis, which she has successfully defended. Recently, Johanna has joined our research group as a research assistant, and we are thrilled to have her on board. Both articles from the project can be found under Publications, and to read more about the project please visit Research projects.

New paper out on cattle cognition

Research on cattle cognition is central to design future high welfare housing. In this narrative review we (Christian Nawroth and I) highlight 3 key areas of cattle cognition research relevant for cattle husbandry. The article is open access and available via the link.

Austrian dairy heifer.

New paper out on equine olfaction

In July 2022 our paper on equine olfaction was published.
“Horse odor exploration behavior is influenced by pregnancy and age”
The full OA paper and supplementary files including videos of behaviour is now available with Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Link

In spite of a highly developed olfactory apparatus of horses, implying a high adaptive value, research on equine olfaction is sparse. Our limited knowledge on equine olfaction poses a risk that horse behavior does not match human expectations, as horses might react fearful when exposed to certain odors, which humans do not consider as frightening. The benefit of acquiring more knowledge of equine olfaction is therefore twofold; (1) it can aid the understanding of horse behavior and hence reduce the risk of dangerous situations, and (2) there may be unexplored potential of using odors in several practical situations where humans interact with horses. This study investigated behavior and olfactory sensitivity of 35 Icelandic horses who were presented with four odors: peppermint, orange, lavender and cedar wood in a Habituation/Dishabituation paradigm. The response variables were sniffing duration per presentation and behavioral reaction (licking, biting, snorting, and backing), and data were analyzed for potential effects of age, sex and pregnancy. Results showed that habituation occurred between successive odor presentations (1st vs. 2nd and 2nd vs. 3rd presentations: P < 0.001), and dishabituation occurred when a new odor was presented (1st vs. 3rd presentations: P < 0.001). Horses were thus able to detect and distinguish between all four odors, but expressed significantly longer sniffing duration when exposed to peppermint (peppermint vs. orange, lavender and cedar wood: P < 0.001). More horses expressed licking when presented to peppermint compared to cedar wood and lavender (P = 0.0068). Pregnant mares sniffed odors less than non-pregnant mares (P = 0.030), young horses (age 0-5 years) sniffed cedar wood for longer than old horses (P = 0.030), whereas sex had no effect (P > 0.050). The results show that horses’ odor exploration behavior and interest in odors varies with age and pregnancy and that horses naïve to the taste of a substrate, may be able to link smell with taste, which has not been described before. These results can aid our understanding of horses’ behavioral reactions to odors, and in the future, it may be possible to relate these to the physiology and health of horses.

Cow cognition at ISAE Nordic meeting 2022

We are delighted that our titles have been accepted for oral presentation at the Nordic ISAE meeting in Sweden, Uppsala 26-28 January 2022. MSc-student Johanna Stenfelt will present the results from her thesis, and I will present the findings from our study on social buffering in dairy cows. Both studies were part of our project “Can cows learn from observing other cows?“, and we are grateful to Naturbruksskolan i Uddetorp for their willingness to participate in the project which yielded these results.

Both abstract titles can be found here, and more information about the Nordic ISAE meeting 2022 can be found at:

New paper out

In December 2021 we published a new paper on the paradigm “Object Permanence” in horses. The results are from the research project of the same name, and we are excited that these finding are now finally out. The paper is published in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, and the review process was the most efficient i have ever experienced. The abstract of the paper can be found below, and the direct link to the open access paper is listed here.


Many frameworks have assessed the ultimate and ontogenetic underpinnings in the development of object permanence, but less is known about whether individual characteristics, such as sex or training level, as well as proximate factors, such as arousal or emotional state, affect performance in these tasks. The current study investigated horses’ performance in visible and invisible displacement tasks and assessed whether specific ontogenetic, behavioral, and physiological factors were associated with performance. The study included 39 Icelandic horses aged 2–25 years, of varying training levels. The horses were exposed to three tasks: (a) a choice test (n = 37), (b) a visible displacement task (n = 35), and (c) an invisible displacement task (n = 31). 27 horses in the choice test, and 8 horses in the visible displacement task, performed significantly better than expected by chance, while none did so in the invisible displacement task. This was also reflected in their group performance, where horses performed above chance level in the choice task and the visible displacement task only. In the invisible displacement task, the group performed significantly worse than expected by chance indicating that horses persistently chose the side where they had last seen the target. None of the individual characteristics included in the study had an effect on performance. Unsuccessful horses had higher heart rate levels, and expressed more behavior indicative of frustration, likely because of their inability to solve the task. The increased frustration/arousal could lead to a negative feedback loop, which might hamper performance in subsequent trials. Care should thus be taken in future experimental designs to closely monitor the arousal level of the tested individuals in order to safeguard comparability.

The first PhD course in Equitation Science

My colleague Dr. Elke Hartmann and I are organising the first PhD course in Equitation Science!

The course is a NOVA course, and currently closed for applications. It will run on 12-16 Aug. 2019, at the National Equestrian Centre Strömsholm, Sweden.

Course Description
The course provides an in depth theoretical/practical knowledge at advanced level of horse behaviour/learning and its consequences for horse welfare and human-horse interactions. The course is designed to develop the participants’ scientific skills and ability to utilize an evidence-based approach when dealing with horses.

The course provides participants with scientific and practical tools with which they can validate human-horse interactions to identify training methods which are ethical, effective and highlight those which represent problems for horse welfare.

Programme Outline

  • Day 1: Introduction equitation science (history, animal rights/welfare) | Equine ethology (behaviour, instincts, biological niche, maintenance behaviour, behavioural needs, domestication, breeding) | Equine perception, communication (senses, social organisation/behaviour)
  • Day 2: Applied ethology (adaptability, umwelt, rationale for studying behaviour, ethogram, anthropomorphism, dominance-leadership concepts, housing, legislation)
  • Day 3: Equine cognition, learning (perception, nervous system, neural control of emotions, learning theory, social learning, stress/pain and learning, motivation) | Influences on performance (biomechanics, laterality, temperament, conformation)
  • Day 4: Applied learning theory (unwanted behaviour, safety, shaping, habit formation, predictability/controllability, equipment, training principles, emotions and learning, ethical equitation), Workshop
  • Day 5: Research methods and communication

Main Teachers

  • Dr Elke Hartmann (SLU, Department of Animal Environment and Health)
  • Dr Maria V Rørvang (SLU, Department of Biosystems and Technology)
  • Ass Prof Janne Winther Christensen (Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University, Tjele, Denmark)
  • Prof Paul McGreevy (University of Sydney, Sydney School of Veterinary Science)

The plan is that the course will be an annual reoccurring course.

For information about the course for 2020, please don’t hesitate to contact us ( Or visit the course homepage:



Swedish media release:

Two new papers accepted!

While I was away on vacation, petting beautiful horses in Iceland, reviewers have been working hard on our two lastest papers. We had many very kind and constructive comments and suggestions for admendments, which is always nice and makes the papers even better.

Very cuddly mare on the North shore of Iceland

Thank you all!! 

Also I would like to thank my co-authors on these papers:

My former PhD supervisor Dr. Margit Bak Jensen for allowing me to expand further on the results from my PhD resulting in this paper:

Jensen, M. B., Rørvang, M. V., 2018. The degree of visual cover and location of birth fluids affect dairy cows’ choice of calving site. Journal of Dairy Science, In press. Doi: 10.3168/jds.2018-14724.

I’m moreover thrilled to have been working with a group of highly motivated horse researchers on our lastest review paper for the special topic in Frontiers in Veterinary Science: Advances and perspectives in farm animal learning. Dr. Jan Ladewig from Copenhagen University and Dr. Andrew McLean from Equitation Science International in Australia as well as my former MSc supervisor Dr. Janne Winther Christensen all made it a very steep learning curve for me, and inspired me to reflect upon my theoretical knowledge of animal learning. I’m impressed how far we have come and very proud of this paper:

Rørvang, M. V., Christensen, J. W., Ladewig, J., McLean, A., Social learning in horses – fact or fiction? Frontiers in Veterinary Science, Animal Behavior and Welfare, (Special topic: Advances and perspectives in farm animal learning and cognition), In press. Doi: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00212.

Please see Publications for further information about the papers and full texts.


ISAE & ISES conferences 2018 coming up!

This year’s International Society for Applied Ethology conference is coming up! We are going to Prince Edward Island in Canada this time and I’m thrilled to once again be part of this great event. I’m also proud to be talking about our lastest review paper under the title: ‘Seek and hide- Understanding pre-partum behavior of cattle by use of inter-species comparison’ as a key-note, introducing the session 5: Cattle behavior and welfare. The article can be found here, and more information about the conference can be found via the Link to the conference webpage.


Later in September the annual International Society for Equitation Science conference is coming up. I’m thrilled that the Scientific committee liked our abstract about social learning, which is based on an upcoming special topic review for Frontiers in Veterinary Science. I’ll be back with more details about this review and the talk. Title of the abstract is: ‘Social learning in horses? – the importance of seeking the simplest explanation’. More information about ISES and the ISES conference can be found here.


Successful PhD defence

Thursday last week (19. April) I successfully defended my PhD. Full pdf of the thesis is available here: Thesis_samlet_print version_110418

It felt very good to put a final end to the project and it was generally a really nice experience to talk a whole day about my cows and experiments. Dr. Marie Haskell from SRUC and Dr. Peter Krawzcel from University of Tennessee was members of the assessment board and did a really great job. More than 100 people joined in the Auditorium at AU Foulum and via the live streaming, and I would just like to thank you all for listening to me and for taking your time to pay attention and show support. I feel very blessed!

It was a great day and I’m looking forward to move further on this research topic in the future.


‘Seek and hide’ – New open access article on ungulate birthing behaviour

Ever wondered why ungulate females isolate while giving birth? Who are they hiding from, and is this behaviour possible under production conditions? Our newest article shed new light on these topics. Link to full text.


The event of giving birth is an essential part of animal production. In dairy cattle production, there are substantial economical and welfare-related challenges arising around the time of parturition, and hence increased focus on efficient management of the calving cow. Drawing on the research literature on prepartum maternal behavior, this review compares cattle to other members of the ungulate clade with the aim of understanding the biological basis of bovine prepartum behavior with main emphasis on dairy cows. Ultimately, this knowledge may be used in future development of housing systems and recommendations for the management of calving cows. Maternal prepartum behavior varies among species, but the final goal of ungulate mothers is the same: ensuring a calm parturition and optimal environment for the onset of postpartum maternal behavior by locating an appropriate birth site, with low risk of predators, disturbances and mistaken identity of offspring. Features of chosen birth sites vary among species and depend largely on the environment, as ungulate females display a considerable ability to adapt to their surroundings. However, within commercial housing conditions in dairy production, the animals’ ability to adapt behaviorally appears to be challenged. Confinement alongside high stocking densities leave little room to express birth-site selection behavior, posing a high risk of agonistic social behavior, disturbances, and mismothering, as well as exposure to olfactory cues influencing both prepartum and postpartum maternal behavior. Dairy cows are thus exposed to several factors in a commercial calving environment, which may thwart their maternal motivations and influence their behavior. In addition, prepartum cattle may be more affected by olfactory cues than other ungulate species (e.g., sheep) because they are attracted to birth fluids already before calving. Hence, providing dairy cows with an environment where they can perform the maternal behavior they are motivated for, may aid a calm and secure calving and provide optimal surroundings for postpartum maternal behavior. Future research should focus on designing motivation-based housing systems allowing freedom to express prepartum maternal behavior and investigate in more detail the effects of the environment on the welfare of calving cows and their offspring.