An danish study, at Aarhus university, presents the first evidence of a link between object-directed curiosity and learning performance in young horses in two very different learning tasks (visual discrimination and pressure-release).
In their study, they exposed 44 young horses to standardised novel object tests. There was one test at five months and two performed on the same day at one year of age.
The study team said the exploratory behaviour in the novel object tests likely reflects the animal’s intrinsic motivation and curiosity, suggesting that this trait is favourable for learning performance.
“Young horses’ intrinsic motivation to explore novel objects was positively associated to learning performance in both a positively and a negatively reinforced task,” they reported, “whereas traditional measures of fearfulness, such as alertness and heart rate responses, were unrelated to learning performance.”
Discussing their findings, the researchers said they were surprised to find no association between traditional measures of fearfulness in horses and performance in the two learning tasks. “Previous studies on adult horses reported a negative effect of fearfulness on performance in learning tasks under stressful conditions, which could be caused by fearful animals becoming more aroused and thus paying less attention to the task.”