Do horses and ponies respond better to visual or auditory cues?

Do horses and ponies respond better to visual or auditory cues?
31 Oct 2016

When training horses, it is common to use both visual and auditory cues, especially when working from the ground. Researchers based in Australia set out to test four hypothesis: whether horses and ponies respond better to visual or auditory cues, whether horses or ponies respond faster, do combined cues make for a faster response and what happens if conflicting auditory and visual cues were given.

To test this, the researchers used an object-choice test. In this test, the animal was presented with two buckets, one with a carrot and one without. The experimenter indicated the bucket containing the carrot using either an auditory or visual cue or both. The visual cue was pointing and the auditory cue was a clicking noise, made by an iPod hooked up to a speaker, behind the chosen bucket. If the test subject went ahead and choose the correct bucket, they would be rewarded with the carrot. The equine had 2 minutes to make a decision or it was considered an incorrect choice. Subjects choosing the wrong bucket were caught immediately and not rewarded. Subjects choosing the correct bucket were verbally praised got to eat the piece of carrot.

Ten horses and ten ponies were used in the study, and they were familiarised with the test area, and fed carrots out of both buckets prior to the study. The bucket containing the carrot was randomised between trails. Each animal had 10 trials with an auditory cue, 10 trials with a visual cue, 10 trials with combined correct auditory and visual cues and 10 trials with combined conflicting auditory and visual cues. Trials were conducted over several days.

The researchers found that there was no significant difference between auditory or visual cues, the horses and ponies responded successfully to both although ponies had significantly quicker response times than horses when visual cues were used. This could be because ponies are more motivated by food.

Combined cues did not result in faster response times.

When conflicting cues were presented the subject’s choice was random. Previous studies have shown a delayed response to conflicting cues which did not occur in this experiment, perhaps because the animals knew from previous experience that there was a carrot in one of the buckets and they were therefore motivated to guess more quickly.

The results of this study indicate that auditory and visual cues are both useful when training horses, ponies may be more food motivated than horses, combining cues may not make equines respond faster and conflicting cues do no result in consistent responses.

Reference
Nansen, C. and Blache, D., 2016. Responses of Domestic Horses and Ponies to Single, Combined and Conflicting Visual and Auditory Cues. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 46, pp.40-46.

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