Navigating Barriers: Can Horses Watch and Learn?

Navigating Barriers: Can Horses Watch and Learn?

While social learning among horses might be possible in some situations, it doesn’t seem to work when it comes to spatial detour tasks, like getting to the food by passing through holes in a fence.

Photo: iStock

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).

But the researchers did observe that the study horses didn’t seem very interested in watching the demonstrator, Rørvang said. And, in fact, they probably weren’t really paying attention—a critical point in learning, as recent studies have shown. So the researchers tried again with an altered study population—hungrier study horses that might be more motivated to solve the task—and an easier maze.

The team taught the horses to get through one opening on the left to get to food first. Then the researchers closed that opening and let the horses get “frustrated” about how to get to the food, she said. Then they opened the fence again, this time on the right. The study horses got to watch the demonstrator go to the right instead, but the control horses did not.

In that second experiment, the study horses did actually perform quite well, with about two-thirds of the horses succeeding in the first try and doing so actively and quickly, Rørvang said. However, the control horses also did pretty well, she added. About a third of them succeeded. So while there was a trend toward social learning, the difference wasn’t significant enough to claim that the horses really did learn from watching the demonstrator.

In a final step of their study, the researchers tried again with a new herd of horses with a similar maze setup. This time, the study horses did just about as well as the control horses—and it sometimes appeared that the control horses did better. In fact, the researchers noted that many of the horses didn’t even try to find a new way to get through the fence to the feed when they found the opening closed.

Disappointing results? Maybe. But Rørvang cautioned that this does not put equine intelligence into question.

“Evolution means that some animals will be ‘smart’ in one context while others will be ‘smart’ in another context, depending on what environment these animals have evolved in,” she said. “Horses might not have evolved in an environment favoring observational or social observational learning. So from this perspective, it would be unfair to define horses as being less smart because they are not able to solve a spatial task after observing another horse doing so.”

As to the attention level during the studies, Rørvang said they can’t conclude anything definite. The researchers did not use any materials to evaluate the horses’ attention during the demonstrations. “We recommend that future studies include such measures to clarify the direction of the horses´ attention in these types of studies, in order to at least elucidate if the horse is looking in the right direction and to determine the exact duration of an observation period,” she said.

The Aarhus team is continuing to investigate social learning in horses and other animals.

The study, “Horses fail to use social learning when solving spatial detour tasks,” was published in Animal Cognition

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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