Habit formation and the effect of chronic stress on cognitive flexibility learning in horses

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Downloads (Pure)


Horse training exposes horses to an array of cognitive and ethological challenges. Horses are routinely required to perform behaviours that are not aligned to aspects of their ethology, which may delay learning. While horses readily form habits during training, not all of these responses are considered desirable, resulting in the horse being subject to retraining. This is a form of cognitive flexibility and is critical to the extinction of habits and the learning of new responses. It is underpinned by complex neural processes which can be impaired by chronic or repeated stress. Domestic horses may be repeatedly exposed to multiples stressors. The potential contribution of stress impairments
of cognitive flexibility to apparent training failures is not well understood, however research from neuroscience can be used to understand horses’ responses to training. We trained horses to acquire habit-like responses in one of two industry-style aversive instrumental learning scenarios (moving away from the stimulus-instinctual or moving towards the stimulus-non-instinctual) and evaluated the effect of repeated stress exposures on their cognitive flexibility in a reversal task. We measured heart rate as a proxy for noradrenaline release, salivary cortisol and serum Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) to infer possible neural correlates of the learning outcomes. The instinctual task which aligned with innate equine escape responses to aversive stimuli was acquired significantly faster than the non-instinctual task during both learning phases, however contrary to expectations, the repeated stress exposure did not impair the reversal learning. We report a preliminary finding that serum BDNF and salivary cortisol concentrations in horses are positively correlated. The ethological salience of training tasks and cognitive flexibility learning can significantly affect learning in horses and trainers should adapt their practices where such tasks challenge innate equine behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2818
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
Issue number20
Publication statusPublished - 2022


Dive into the research topics of 'Habit formation and the effect of chronic stress on cognitive flexibility learning in horses'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this