If you're convinced some horses can learn from each other, even though researchers have not previously been able to confirm it, you’re on the right track. Scientists just had to take a little closer look into the details of who’s doing the learning.

Younger, lower-ranking, and more curious horses are much more likely to exhibit “social learning”—learning by watching other horses, according to study results from German and Scottish scientists.

“This study is the first to clearly demonstrate social transfer of feeding behavior in horses,” stated the researchers, led by Konstanze Krueger, PhD, of the University of Regensburg in Germany. “Misconceptions about the horse’s sociality may have hampered earlier studies.”

This isn't the first time researchers have evaluated whether horses can watch and learn. Line Peerstrup Ahrendt, MSc, performed two social learning studies that yielded conflicting results. In the first, 3-year-old groups of geldings appeared capable of social learning, with half of those horses learning to open a box of food by watching another horse do it first. However, when Ahrendt employed 44 horses of mixed age and social groups, the trend didn’t continue.

Krueger’s study specifically targeted social learning with attention to age and social ranking. She and her fellow researchers took five established herds and kept them in their intimate social groups of between three and 12 horses, she said. They then specifically chose a middle-aged, middle-ranking horse to be the “demonstrator” and taught him how to open a feed box. In this case, the feed box was a closed drawer placed on the ground, with carrots and bread hidden inside. The researchers taught the demonstrator horses to pull on a rope to open the drawer.

Of the 25 observer horses, aged 2 to 15 years, 12 reached what the researchers called “learning criteria”—meaning they not only figured out how to open the drawer, but they could also open it consistently 10 times in a row. The observer horses were not taught by handlers how to open the drawer; rather, they watched a demonstrator horse (from the same social group) pulling on the rope and opening the drawer.

“The learners in the social learning test were significantly younger, lower-ranking, and more exploratory than the nonlearners,” Krueger explained. “The younger a horse was, the faster it reached learning criteria. When considering (our results), age appears to be the most influential factor for social learning in horses.”

Krueger was accompanied by Jürgen Heinze, PhD, also of the University of Regensburg, and Kate Farmer, MSc, of the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, in this study.

The study, "The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses," will appear in an upcoming issue of Animal Cognition