Are Horses Self-Aware?

This pilot research of MSR in horses is one of a handful of recent studies of social cognition that go beyond looking at how horses interact with one another and to explore equine emotions and empathy.

Photo: Photos.com

What does a horse see when it looks into a mirror? A novel object with a shiny surface? Another horse through a frame? Or does it recognize itself in the reflection?

Italian researchers Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD; Elisa Demuru, PhD; Chiara Scopa, MS; and Elisabetta Palagi, MS, PhD, from the Università di Pisa studied the question of self-awareness in horses using a test of mirror self- recognition (MSR). Their article: “Are horses capable of mirror self-recognition? A pilot study,” was published this year.1

What is MSR?

Researchers first used MSR to study the development of self-awareness in children, which coincides with other social-cognitive milestones such as empathy. In this test, a mark is discretely placed on the child’s forehead, cheek, or back, where it can only be seen in the mirror. Young children who have not yet developed MSR will often touch the mark on the reflection or look behind the mirror—perceiving the image to be another child—or they might ignore the mirror altogether. When children 2 years and older are tested, they typically adjust their position to get a better look at the mark on their own body, and might try to touch or remove it.

Baragli and his colleagues studied MSR in four horses. Researchers painted a cross on each horse’s cheeks using water-based gel; in the test, one mark was colored with yellow or blue powder, and the other was transparent to control for any reactions to the tactile properties of the gel. The horse was then placed in an enclosure with a large mirror. Each horse completed a series of five tests. The first two tests were to see the horse’s reaction to the mirror, and the final three tests were to see the horse’s reaction to the marks.

The horses in this study clearly reacted to the mirror image. They spent more time in front of it, explored it, and looked behind the mirror repeatedly. Whether the horses reacted to the colored mark was not as clear; two of the four horses scraped the mark more when it was colored than when it was transparent, but only on the left cheek. In general, the occurrence of cheek scraping was low and varied across horses.

The authors concluded that the horses’ actions “did not match the complete expected behavioral steps to fit the mirror self-recognition paradigm. Without replication of data, the self-directed behavior towards the colored mark … is not sufficient per se to affirm that horses are capable of mirror self-recognition.”

Is MSR a Good Test of Self-Awareness?

If horses fail the MSR test, should we conclude that the aren’t self-aware? Absolutely not.

The risk of “false negative” test results—when individuals possess self-awareness but fail the test of MSR—is potentially high.2 For example, in some cultures, the majority of children fail the MSR test, freezing and staring when they see their reflection, whereas the majority of children in Western cultures pass. This finding reflects cultural differences in reaction to the test, not an absence of self-awareness.

The risk of “false negative” test results is even higher in animals. Primates, elephants, dolphins, and magpies, have passed the MSR test, but other highly social animals have failed. It seems to be a good test for most primates, who have keen vision and are fastidious groomers, but gorillas are a notable exception and tend to fail the mark test. Direct stares constitute a social threat in this species, so gorillas avoid making eye contact with the mirror image; researchers have observed that some will move away from the mirror and groom the mark privately. In other cases, the animal might be self-aware and notice the mark but simply not care. For example, elephants routinely cover themselves with dirt and might not mind having their skin painted. Another concern is that the test is not valid for animals—like dogs—who are not particularly visual. Dogs fail the mirror test, but a recent study showed that they readily pass an “olfactory-mirror” test of self-recognition, probably because smelling urine matches their motivational drives and sensory abilities.3

This pilot research of MSR in horses is one of a handful of recent studies of social cognition that go beyond looking at how horses interact with one another and to explore equine emotions and empathy. The authors call for a replication of their research, but MSR might not be the best tool for studying self-awareness in horses, and other methods should be explored.

References

Baragli P, Demuru E, Scopa C, & Palagi E. (2017) Are horses capable of mirror self-recognition? A pilot study. PLoS ONE 12(5): e0176717. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176717

Koerth-Baker, M. (2010) Kids (and animals) who fail classic mirror tests may still have sense of self, Scientific American (Nov 29): https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/kids-and-animals-who-fail-classic-mirror/

3 Horowitz, A. (2017) Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test. Behavioural Processes 143,17–24

About the Author

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant

Robin Foster, PhD, CAAB, IAABC-Certified Horse Behavior Consultant, is a research professor at the University of Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington, and an affiliate professor at the University of Washington. She holds a doctorate in animal behavior and has taught courses in animal learning and behavior for more than 20 years. Her research looks at temperament, stress, and burn-out as they relate to the selection, retention, and welfare of therapy horses. She also provides private behavior consultations and training services in the Seattle area.

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