Navigating Barriers: Can Horses Watch and Learn?

While equine social learning might be possible in some situations, it doesn’t seem to work with spatial detour tasks.
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While you might have no problem watching others navigate through a crowd to reach a food truck and then successfully following suit, don’t count on your horse to have the same ability. While social learning among horses might be possible in some situations, it doesn’t seem to work when it comes to spatial detour tasks—getting to the food by passing through holes in a fence just isn’t something horses tend to learn from each other, researchers in Denmark found.

“This study indicates that horses do not learn from seeing another horse performing a particular spatial task, which is in line with most other findings from social learning experiments,” said Maria Vilain Rørvang, PhD fellow in the Department of Animal Science at Aarhus University, in Tjele. In their recent study, Rørvang and fellow Aarhus researchers Janne Winther Christensen, PhD, associate professor, and Line Peerstrup Ahrendt, MSc, PhD fellow, tried three different scenarios to see if horses learned from observing others when navigating around transparent barriers. Their conclusion? They did not.

Ahrendt has previously shown that horses might be able to learn to open a box to get to food by watching other horses, but her two-part study showed conflicting results. A later German-Scottish study suggested that social learning might depend on the horse, including his curiosity level and his age compared to the demonstrator.

With that in mind, Rørvang and colleagues designed a study that used the dominant horse as the demonstrator in a herd of young Icelandic geldings. (They also used a herd of young Icelandic mares, but the second-ranking mare was the demonstrator because the dominant mare was considered too aggressive at feeding time.) Study horses were allowed to watch their demonstrator being led five times (two times forward through the maze and three times back) around fences and through an opening to a bucket of feed. They were then allowed to try for themselves. Despite being allowed to watch, the study horses generally didn’t perform any better than the control horses (which had only been allowed to see the demonstrator horse eating from the bucket at the end of the task)

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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