Are Horses Self-Aware?

Italian researchers used the mirror self-recognition test on horses. Here’s a look at the results.

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Are Horses Self-Aware?
This pilot research of MSR in horses is one of a handful of recent studies of social cognition that go beyond looking at how horses interact with one another and to explore equine emotions and empathy. | Photo:

What does a horse see when it looks into a mirror? A novel object with a shiny surface? Another horse through a frame? Or does it recognize itself in the reflection?

Italian researchers Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD; Elisa Demuru, PhD; Chiara Scopa, MS; and Elisabetta Palagi, MS, PhD, from the Università di Pisa studied the question of self-awareness in horses using a test of mirror self- recognition (MSR). Their article: “Are horses capable of mirror self-recognition? A pilot study,” was published this year.¹

What is MSR?

Researchers first used MSR to study the development of self-awareness in children, which coincides with other social-cognitive milestones such as empathy. In this test, a mark is discretely placed on the child’s forehead, cheek, or back, where it can only be seen in the mirror. Young children who have not yet developed MSR will often touch the mark on the reflection or look behind the mirror—perceiving the image to be another child—or they might ignore the mirror altogether. When children 2 years and older are tested, they typically adjust their position to get a better look at the mark on their own body, and might try to touch or remove it

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Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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