Working with Laterals

Recently I read an article on a study which indicated that horses keep new or possibly threatening things under scrutiny of their right eye, while sparing their left eye for the familiar. The idea that horses naturally favour the near side has interesting implications – we’re always told that European horsemen mounted from the near side in days of yore because it saved them from sitting on their own sword, but by doing so they were inadvertently placing themselves on the horse’s “good” side, so to speak.

A new study explored horse’s preferences for, er, “lateral thinking”, with some interesting results.

“[Paolo] Baragli [of the University of Pisa] and his colleagues set up asymmetrical barriers, meaning one side is much longer than the other, to see which behavior is stronger–spatial reasoning or laterality. They switched things up by putting the longer side on the left and other times on the right. Then they tested 10 Italian saddle horses to see if they chose the shortest way around or if they had a preferred side.The researchers found that the group was divided. Six of the horses showed a clear side preference to the left (three horses) or to the right (three horses) every time, no matter how long the route. But the other four horses seemed to study the situation and evaluate the distance, choosing the shortest side nearly every time.

Three of the horses that chose the shortest side had originally shown a side preference when faced with symmetrical barriers in a previous study, Baragli said.”

There’s a video of the experiments here with the original article, at The Horse.
Interesting to think what the implications could be. Would a three-day eventer prefer a mount who liked to calculate spatial distances and make a decision based on that? Or would it be better to have a horse with few opinions of his own?
I remember reading one of Ginny Leng’s books as a child, in which she said that Nightcap would simply do whatever you told him, while Priceless, his half brother, insisted on choosing his own path through an obstacle. He was the more brilliant of the two, and part pony, which, to anyone who has been a small child on a stubborn mountain and moorland, will make absolute sense…

EDITED TO ADD: A new study shows that foals that are handled from the off side from birth are more likely to avoid humans than those handled on the near side. Read about it here.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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