I read an article on thehorse.com about an experiment to see if horses can be optimistic or pessimistic just like we can. I was at first intrigued by this study and was eager to find out what they have discovered. By the end of the article, I had questioned the effectiveness of the study...
Swiss equine behaviour scientists were curious to know if a horse could be optimistic or pessimistic so they developed a test to help them figure it out. They placed two buckets on opposite sides of a paddock; one bucket had food and the other had nothing.
Twelve mares were used for this experiment and were divided into two groups. The first group of mares were taught with positive re-enforcement, usually with a treat reward, to go to the bucket that had the food. The other group of mares were taught with negative re-enforcement (by using the rider's legs, hands or whip) to get to the right answer.
Once all the horses knew to always to go directly to the bucket with food, they added a twist to the exercise. The scientists decided to put another bucket in the middle of the two previous buckets. Their thinking was that if a horse decides to check out the new bucket first, it is more optimistic than a horse who goes directly to the bucket where they know the food is.
Their end results surprised the scientists. They discovered that the mares who had the negative re-enforcement were more optimistic than those who had the positive re-enforcement.
Here is what I think was the reason for the end results. Those with the positive re-enforcement had been already taught what the "right answer" was. They knew that if they went to that bucket, they would get food. So why would they go somewhere else when they know where the right answer is?
Those with the negative re-enforcement didn't like their past experiences at the "right answer" bucket. So, since there is a new option available, those mares have figured that they might as well try that out to see if they'll get a more positive response. If they do, then they will figure out that the middle bucket is the "right answer".
In the end, all of the mares went to the bucket where they believed was the right place to go. I don't think it really had to do with optimism at all, it had to do with the mares going to the bucket that they believed was the correct one since that is where they got the most positive result.
I would love to know what all of you think about this study. Whether you think it was effective at proving that horses can be optimistic or whether you agree with me or you think something else, it would be interesting to see what other horse people think about this study. I may be wrong in the way I think about this (and that's okay, we are all learning!). This could be a great opportunity for a discussion. Let me know what you think in the comment section below, by email or by another form of social media.
If you would like to read the article to learn more about the study, click here.
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Until next time, happy riding!