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Everyone’s in the barn, all stall doors snugly closed. Lights out.

Fast forward to the next morning, and there’s your gelding hanging out in the paddock, his stall door wide open. Or maybe all the horses are out, and all the doors are open. After a few nights in a row of this, you set up cameras and discover something you couldn’t have possibly imagined: one of your horses has figured out how to open the latch to his door. Worse, he might even have figured out how to open the doors to the other stalls, letting everyone out for a midnight party.

Cool? Definitely. Film it and share it on YouTube.

But dangerous? Absolutely. An escaped horse can be a danger to himself and others. So what exactly do you do?

“Some horses are really clever and can figure out how to open even very complex locks, sometimes even padlocks with keys!” said Konstanze Krueger, PhD, of the University of Regensburg, in Germany. “Finding ways to keep them in is important for everyone’s sake. But the first step has to be understanding what motivated the horse to get out in the first place, and address that problem.”

In a recent study, Krueger and her fellow researchers investigated more than 400 cases of horses who had figured out, on their own, how to open locks to escape their stalls. Benefiting from owner video footage and interviews with the (usually frustrated) owners, they were able to determine that horses are capable of complex thinking patterns that permit them to unlock a wide variety of door locks. And often, they’re motivated by a desire to eat or socialize.

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“We saw cases where horses opened simple locks, just a latch for example,” Krueger said. “But we also saw situations where horses could open twist locks that require significant cognitive processing and complex tongue movements. We even saw a case of a horse that had to go through a four-step process to open a padlock by turning a key, unlatching the lock, lifting the lock off the door, and then opening the latch, which seems to clearly indicate a capacity to understand a series of events leading to a goal—essentially, an ability to reason.”

Some of the horses appeared to want to escape individual box stalls in order to access hay or to socialize with other horses, she said. But others were already housed in group conditions with constant access to hay, so these social and nutritive needs were met. “These horses appeared to be motivated out of boredom or pure curiosity,” Krueger explained.

Overall, the researchers noted the 408 horses opening a total of nearly 600 different kinds of doors or gates, ranging from hinged to sliding to barred doors. The various locks included vertical or horizontal bars, twist locks, door handles, electric fence handles, carabiners, and locks with keys. Nearly half the horses were able to open several kinds of mechanisms at different locations.

The vast majority of horses were the only ones at their site that had this capability, so it was unlikely they learned it from other horses, Krueger explained. “They either figured it out themselves or learned by watching humans,” she said.

To keep them indoors, first find out if they have a welfare issue that’s driving them, like lack of sufficient food or social company, according to Krueger. If all those needs are met, try giving them more attention and training. “Some horses just need more intellectual stimulation,” she told Horses and People. “For those horses, give them some new training tasks to keep their minds occupied and their curiosity satisfied.”

This open access study by Krueger K, Esch L, Byrne R (2019) titled: Animal behaviour in a human world: A crowdsourcing study on horses that open door and gate mechanisms. PLoS ONE 14(6): e0218954.

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Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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