Are horses 'lazy' or just bored, ask scientists
Horses are "lazy" - or at least have little interest in academic research - a new study has found.Since the dawn of time, they have seemed man’s hardest working animal companion – performing stoically as a method of transport, a weapon of war and a beast of burden, as well as a variety of sporting and recreational roles.
But, new research suggests that the humble horse might not be quite such a willing worker as it often appears.
A scientific study entitled 'Are Horses Lazy?’ has found strong evidence which indicates the answer is 'yes’ – or at least that they have little appetite for such research.
The study, in the latest edition of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, involved horses being given the option of a short or long period of exercise.
A Y-shaped maze was built in an indoor arena and the animals were conditioned, through repetition, to associate one exit with a single lap of the arena – 130ft – and the other with two laps.
After that, the horses, without a rider, were allowed to chose which exit they wanted.
Once they left the maze, a rider climbed on for the single or double lap. The process was repeated until a clear preference emerged, or 35 passes through the maze had been made.
Of the 14 horses taking part, four preferred the shorter course and two for the longer one. Eight did not show a statistically significant preference.
But while there was not an overwhelming preference for the shorter route, the researchers picked up other signals that left them in little doubt as to the animals’ appetite for the study.
Over the course of the trial, some horses became increasingly reluctant to even enter the maze and most showed increasing reluctance to being mounted by the waiting rider – by sidestepping.
Also, during the conditioning phase, when being walked on longer route, the animals displayed more tail swishing – a sign associated with disgruntlement.
But in perhaps the clearest sign that the animals were reluctant to take part, an earlier pilot study, featuring four horses, had fallen flat because all horses repeatedly chose the left fork, which pointed towards the exit door.
On a number of occasions, they left the maze so quickly and trotted towards the exit so that they could not be caught by the waiting rider. For the main experiment, the researchers, from the University of Guelph, in Canada and University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, in Austria, rotated the course by 90 degrees, to remove this temptation from the animals.
Dr Uta König von Borstel, one of the researchers, said: “We asked 'are horses lazy’ and the answer would definitely be yes.
“They will actually go to extra effort and work hard in order to avoid work. That is the impression we were left with after the study.
“Many owners have the impression that their horses love to run and work hard, and that might sometimes be the case but it is limited to a very short period of time.
“If they are allowed their own way, horses would be back in the stable with their mates, eating.
“The horses weren’t interested in our study. Either they didn’t understand the set up – that they could chose between more and less work – or they were just indifferent and thought 'whatever, let me get out of here’. They preferred to be somewhere else.”
She said horses could be motivated to work harder with more positive reinforcement – being given more treats and encouragement – and less negative reinforcement.
Before the tests, the owners or handlers had been asked to rate whether they considered their animal lazy or energetic, on a scale of one to five.
But the results showed that this had little impact on their preferences.