“Well, he did it, so it can’t be that bad,” said the Icelandic waiting his turn to cross a plastic tarp for the first time.
Okay, so maybe he didn’t say that exactly. But new study results from Danish researchers suggest that horses watching another horse perform a scary task end up being less spooked about that task when it’s their turn to do it. And that, they said, can be a great improvement for equine welfare as well as horse and human safety.
“Using experienced or older horses when training a younger or naive horse is a technique that’s been used for several years, but there’s never been evidence that it actually works in frightening situations, until now,” said Maria Vilain Rørvang, a PhD fellow in the Aarhus University Department of Animal Science, in Tjele.
What “works,” however, is not actual learning, Rørvang said. Her research indicates that horses learn to cross a plastic tarp just as fast whether they’ve observed a demonstrator do it first or not.
The advantage of the demonstrator, she said, is the calming effect. “By observing an already habituated horse completing a fearful task, these horses were less frightened when doing so themselves,” said Rørvang. “This means that horses can actually habituate to frightening situations by watching another calm horse.”
When horses learn to perform a new behavior or a novel task by watching other horses (which is not the case here), it’s called “social learning.” What’s happening in this case is called “social facilit