Are Horses Indolent Layabouts? Researchers Think Maybe


Humans have expected horses to trundle us and all our crap around ever since our sore-footed ancestors came upon the first majestic equus gazing alone in a vale and thought, “Huh, that thing could totally carry some of us around for a little while, just until our corns go away.” Before horses knew what was happening, we were strapping them to carriages and slapping their hindquarters with leather whips, or insisting that they run around in a circle so we can wear funny hats and gamble on the fleetness of their hooves. It would stand to reason that horses became such ubiquitous beasts of burden because they have a tremendous work ethic, but that’s what we call a fallacy. Horses, in turns out, are just as lazy and shiftless as people.

Or maybe not. Or maybe yes. Or maybe we should stop trying to anthropomorphize animals. According to the Telegraph, however, a new study has tried to do just that in its effort to determine whether or not horses preferred doing more work than they really had to. The study, which appears in the latest scintillating edition of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, centered around giving horses a long and a short exercise interval and seeing which fit of activity they preferred (hint: the shorter one):

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.

Though it’s true that horses didn’t demonstrate an “overwhelming preference” for the shorter activity interval, researchers observed that many of the horses demonstrated obstinance or outright irritation (via tell-tale signs like tail-swishing and sidestepping their would-be riders) when forced to enter the maze. These observations help confirm scientific suspicions of equine lassitude developed during an earlier pilot study that failed to gain momentum when the horses kept galloping towards the exit of the research enclosure.

According to researcher Dr. Uta Köning von Borstel, the results of the latest study coupled with the scuppered pilot study are evidence enough to describe the horse as a lazy creature:

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.

Researchers may call this unwillingness to perform manual labor “laziness,” but I think we all know what’s really going on here — horses have been stricken with technological ennui, and see no point in carrying us around anymore now that we have replaced them with cruder forms of locomotion. It’s science.

Are horses ‘lazy’ or just bored, ask scientists [Telegraph]

Image via Getty, Alan Crowhurst

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