James Madison University

Proving Equine Intelligence

Psychology Faculty and Student Published in Academic Journal

Posted: November 19, 2012

PHOTO: Jessa LampeHave you ever looked at your pet and wondered what it was thinking? One James Madison University psychology alumni, Jessica “Jessa” Lampe, began horseback riding as a child, and had always been curious about the intelligence of her equines. The wondering became a constant question during Lampe’s 2009 sophomore year, while she juggled responsibilities on the university equestrian team and a part-time job at Seventh Heaven Farms in Broadway. Lampe became well acquainted with the horses she was working with every day, and decided to use her upcoming senior thesis project to investigate their intelligence.

Although the project was officially two semesters away, Lampe had no time for procrastination. She had already planned to spend her junior year studying abroad in Oxford, and would not be able to begin her honors research at the usual time. She knew she wanted to focus on rider/horse interaction when she approached Dr. Jeffrey Andre about her thesis, but her ideas really developed during her experiences overseas.

Lampe traveled to Sussex University during the fall of 2010, where she met researchers working in animal cognition who were conducting a study that measured a horse’s ability to recognize familiar and unfamiliar horses. Their findings indicated that not only could horses differentiate between known and unknown equines, but that they showed signs of cross-modulation; the ability to integrate information from multiple senses. Lampe was intrigued, and decided to take their findings a step further by applying the same approach to studying a horse’s recognition of familiar and unfamiliar humans.

Dr. Andre, a specialist in human sensation and perception, had never previously completed animal research. Nevertheless, he was confident he could successfully collaborate with Ms. Lampe.  They could be successful if they combined their unique skills.

“I helped her formulate her equine perception ideas into something we could execute,” said Dr. Andre. He explained that professors can sometimes be a sounding board for students, helping them to think through  all of the steps necessary to carrying a project to completion.

Lampe wanted to study horses in a typical setting, which made Seventh Heaven Farms an ideal location for the first equine research project in university history. Although the horses lodged off campus, the project still had to gain approval from JMU’s Institute of Animal Care and Use Committee, not an easy task considering all of the university rules were, to date, intended to be for research conducted on campus. Once the duo convinced the board that the twelve participating horses would be unharmed and well taken care of, Lampe conducted her study within the farm’s stables and surrounding grounds so that her to tests could be conducted without disrupting the horse’s natural environment. JMU equestrian coach Bobby Jones served as the familiar human and various males of the same age as unfamiliar people.

PHOTO: Horses at FarmDuring these tests, Lampe examined differences in horse behavior during “congruent” and “non-congruent conditions.” When there is congruency, the voice, smell, image, taste, and sound of a person  matched, while during non-congruency, one of these senses was not consistent.  Lampe found that horses were more interested in instances of non-congruency, demonstrated by length of time they spent looking at their subject and the total number of times they looked. Like humans, they looked at interesting stimuli longer. The results showed that horses integrate information they receive from all of their senses to recognize individuals. 

The positive outcome inspired Dr. Andre and Lampe to submit their findings to scholarly journal Animal Cognition in summer 2011, and the journal editors were were immediately interested in publishing their findings.

“These findings illuminate how horses use their brains and identify cues, as well as show that horses can put different modal cues together into one representation of a human,” said Lampe. “It is important that we understand the animals we work with and how they function cognitively. For horse lovers, it indicates that their equine can in fact identify them and aren’t just excited to see them for motivations such as food – although I am sure food helps!”

Although Animal Cognition wanted to publish the study, they asked her to condense her 4,500-word manuscript to a “brief report.” Dr. Andre said that it was quite a challenge to explain complex research in a brief report. He said that you have to assume that journal readers will know some things, but you also need to give them enough information that they can understand your research. I edited our original submission, but could not get it under 3,800 words, and when Jessa edited my revision, it turned out close to the original. In the end, the journal agreed that it had to be published in its entirety.”

Animal Cognition published their article in May 2012. The date of publication was timely, as the Summer Olympics were drawing attention to equestrian interests, including rider/horse relationships.  Once published, the article was quickly reported upon by media sources in the U.S., France, Austria, and Germany.

“The immediate success surprised even me,” said Dr. Andre. “The publication time was fast, and other media reported on it so quickly. It really took off, going to show that people love their horses and are interested in their level of intelligence. We helped demonstrate that they are indeed quite smart.”

Since graduating, Lampe has earned a Master’s degree in Scotland, and recently finished working in China with the Animals Asia Foundation to rescue endangered black bears. She is currently applying to doctorate programs in the U.K. As for Dr. Andre, he is always looking to collaborate on new projects with undergraduate students.

“It’s a very rewarding process,” Dr. Andre said. “Students have to come up with the idea, but we unpack it together. They bring their own interests and ideas from others classes and I guide them with the knowledge I have. We both learn a lot.”

Lampe added, “Make your project worth it.”  Aim high.  “If you plan to do research in the future, it is a very valuable experience.”

By following a curiosity she had since childhood, Lampe was able to contribute to science while still an undergraduate.  Ms. Lampe’s work demonstrates that academic research and success often go hand in hand with passion.