Do Horses Learn by Watching Each Other?

Sometimes it seems like horses pick up behaviors from each other. But it might be for reasons different than you think.

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Do Horses Learn By Watching Each Other?

Q: Do horses learn behaviors by watching other horses?

A: Horses are great learners in many ways, but in general we find horses are not good observational learners. Researchers have conducted numerous studies where one group of subject horses watch experienced horses performing a task, or inexperienced horses learning a task, and another group of subject horses don’t watch. Then both subject groups are tested to see which learns the task quicker. And there is no statistical difference between them, so observing another doesn’t appear to help a horse learn more quickly. These studies use food rewards as the objective of the learning tasks, and even though food is a great motivator for horses to learn, maybe that particular research design doesn’t test all the ways a horse might learn by observation.

So why does it sometimes seem like horses learn by observing others? This comes up a lot when people have a cribber in the barn and they worry that other horses will learn to crib from him. Some would say just the environment or management practice is conducive to multiple horses adopting a behavior, such as cribbing. That’s a tad weak explanation for a stereotypy though

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Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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