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Are Horses Sensitive to Unfair Situations?

If you own horses, then you may have experienced unfair situations. These might be similar to needing to feed one horse larger volumes than another. Many owners try to come up with ways to prevent their horses sensing an inequity. Some people separate their horses at feeding time. Alternatively, they feed a small amount to a good doer to distract them whilst another horse eats a larger ration. But are the horses truly aware of the inequity and do they care?

Horse owners tend to behave as if their horses can sense inequity but do, they need to bother?
 

Inequity Awareness Research

There has been limited research into animals’ ability to perceive unfairness. The response is known as inequity aversion and it is very obvious in humans and primates. But what about other species?

Researchers have noted inequity aversion in dogs but until recently they thought to be the consequence of their domestication. But researchers from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna have recently found that wolves also react to inequity. They discovered that both wolves and dogs refused to cooperate in an experiment when only a partner animal received a treat or when the subject dog received a lower quality reward for their behaviour than their partner.

The fact that wolves responded in the same way as dogs suggests that inequity aversion is not the result of domestication but rather an inherited trait.

Researchers carried out experiments that they referred to as "no reward" tests. Here, an animal takes part in a test during which the researcher rewards another animal when the tested animal performs the required behaviour. Both the dogs and wolves soon stopped cooperating when they realised that they weren't getting the reward! If the researcher removed the other animal, the remaining dog or wolf would then be happy to continue.

Dogs and wolves have a hierarchy and higher-ranking animals were quicker to become frustrated with inequity.

Equine Inequity Research

Research in Japan looked into whether horses can also sense inequity. University of Tokyo researcher Ayaka Takimoto and her colleagues conducted experiments to determine whether domestic horses were sensitive to unfair situations and whether they would react to inequity negatively.

In their experiments, people trained both a partner and a subject horse to touch a target when given a visual and verbal command to do so. During the experiments a particular unfair phrase would trigger someone to give a high value food reward to the partner horse and a lower value treat to the horse completing the tasks. The reaction times of the horses was considerably slower under unfair conditions.

This was the first experimental evidence of inequity aversion in ungulates. But anecdotal evidence suggests that horse owners are aware that their animals are sensitive to inequity. Living and working with horses results in an in-depth understanding of their behaviour. Scientific research is merely confirming what dedicated equestrians already know!

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