“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 facilitation”—an important distinction, Rørvang said.

“In our study we saw a reduction in an innate reaction (i.e., the fear reaction), an example of social transmission of information involving less complex mechanisms than actual social learning,” she said. “In this case the observing horses benefitted from social facilitation of habituation.

“Despite the quite tricky terminology, social facilitation is quite common and easily explained,” she continued. “Social facilitation can be seen in the paddock, for example. When two horses start playing, this event will heighten the chance that other horses will engage in playing too. Soon, more horses will start to play, due to the fact that they were affected by social facilitation of play behavior.”

In their study, Rørvang and fellow Aarhus researchers Janne Winther Christensen, PhD, associate professor, and Line Peerstrup Ahrendt, MSc, a PhD fellow, tested young Icelandic horses in a tarp-crossing task. All 22 three-year-olds had to learn to freely cross a plastic tarp to get to a bucket of food. The researchers allowed half the horses to first watch a demonstrator horse (a horse about the same age and in the same social group) calmly cross the tarp. The other half of the horses—the control group—only saw the demonstrator eating from the bucket on the other side of the tarp; they didn’t see the horse actually cross the tarp.

All 22 horses completed the task, and they did so within a similar amount of time (about one minute), Rørvang said. However, the “observer” horses had significantly lower average and maximum heart rates compared to the control horses.

“In practice, this has great potential when training naive horses in fear-eliciting situations,” she said.

“It also means that horses are able to obtain this information from a distance (up to 10 meters [about 30 feet]) by just observing the calm companion,” she added. “So horse owners don’t need to make the horses interact or have them in close proximity to each other when training, thereby limiting the risk of potential disputes between the horses (especially with regard to hierarchy).”

The use of demonstrators could be beneficial in all kinds of frightening situations, she said. Common examples including trailer loading, crossing a novel surface, or visiting a new barn.

“Using a calm, habituated horse when training a naive horse will heighten the welfare of the trained horses, for sure,” Rørvang said. “More importantly, however, when training like this, you will be able to reduce the fear reaction of your horse during training, and thereby heighten the safety for yourself. As unexpected flight responses have been shown to be the major cause of rider/trainer injuries in the horse world, having a less fearful horse will mean a lower risk of flight responses, which will reduce the risk of injuries to the trainer.”

The study, “A trained demonstrator has a calming effect on naïve horses when crossing a novel surface,” was published in Applied Animal Behavior Science.