Object permanence in horses: Horses’ ability to track hidden objects and the effects of training level

In the daily management routines and housing systems, horses can be faced with novel and sudden stimuli or objects (re-)appearing which potentially can elicit stress responses. Knowledge of horses’ ability to track hidden objects can shed light onto how good horses are at handling these situations. Object permanence refers to the understanding that an object continues to exist even though they are out an observer’s (here: the horse’s) sight. This means, that the higher the level of object permanence in a given animal, the higher the ability to predict changes in the environment.

This project aims to investigate aspects of object permanence in horses and the effect of training level. A sample of horses from a private stud will be included and consist of free roaming, untrained young horses combined with professionally trained, competing horses.

Although it is currently unknown if horses possess any level of object permanence, it has recently been found that dwarf goats possess a high level of object permanence, implying that domesticated mammalian species might have evolved to possess this ability. The results may help understand how horses perceive their environment as well as help to understand the evolution of intelligence.

Case species: Icelandic horses.

Icelandic horse

The project’s experiments was conducted in Denmark in April 2021.

The results were presented at the 17th International Equitation Science conference 2021, and was later publiched in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience:

Rørvang, M. V., Nicova, K., Sassner, H., Nawroth, C., 2021. Horses’ (Equus caballus) Ability to Solve Visible but Not Invisible Displacement Tasks Is Associated With Frustration Behavior and Heart Rate. Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, 15:792035. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2021.792035.

Videos from the experiment illustrating a successful horse in each of the three tests we used:

A horse successfully completing the visible transposition task:

A horse successfully completing the invisible transposition task:

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