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Front Psychol. 2012 Nov 16;3:504. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00504. eCollection 2012.

Does the stimulus type influence horses' performance in a quantity discrimination task?

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Cognitive Ethology Laboratory, German Primate Center Göttingen, Germany.


The ability to understand the relation between quantities has been documented in a wide range of species. Such quantity discrimination competences are commonly demonstrated by a choice of the larger quantity or numerosity in a two-choice task. However, despite their overall success, many subjects commit a surprisingly large number of errors even in simple discriminations such as 1 vs. 3. Recently, it had been suggested that this is a result of the testing procedure. When monkeys could choose between different quantities of edible rewards, they showed low-level success. If, however, they chose between inedible items and were rewarded with edible items, their performance increased. The same held true if they chose between edible items but were rewarded with other edible items (Schmitt and Fischer, 2011). This led to the suggestion that the monkeys may not have been able to mentally separate between choice- and reward-stimuli in the initial test situation. To investigate if this response pattern can also be found in non-primate species, we replicated the experiment with 12 Icelandic horses kept at a private horse-riding school. Horses are known to discriminate between quantities up to three, but are very distantly related to primates. Unexpectedly, we found only weak evidence for quantity discrimination skills and no effect of the type of stimuli. Only some subjects reliably selected the larger quantity in some, but not all quantity pairs. These findings are not only in contrast to the previously conducted study on monkeys, but also to other studies on horses. From this, we conclude that quantity discrimination competence may only be of minor importance for horses and highlight the influence of experimental conditions on the outcome of cognitive tests.


edible reward; horses; inedible reward; quantity discrimination; stimulus type

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