Horses do not learn by watching others
23 Mar 2015
Recent research from Iceland can be added to a long list of studies which have found that horses do not learn very well by observing others.
Social learning is where an animal learns something by watching another animal do it.
In the study, individual horses observed another horse being lead through an opening in a fence to a feed bucket, and then were released to try and find the opening for themselves. The demonstrator horse chosen was a dominant paddock mate, as the researchers predicted that this might make the observer horses more likely to pay attention to the demonstration. As a control for the experiment, there was another group of horses who did not see a demonstrator horse being led through the opening to the feed, but had to find the opening for themselves.
The horses who observed the demonstration took on average just as many tries to find the opening in the fence as horses that didn’t.
The researchers then hypothesized that perhaps the observer horses were not paying enough attention to the demonstration, so they then tried a slightly different version of the experiment. In order to motivate the observer horses to pay attention, the researchers first gave the horses a short “frustration session” where they were able to see the feed but were not able to get to it. The experiment was then conducted. Still, the results between control horses and observer horses were not significant.
Finally, the researchers tried performing the experiment with an ‘older’ demonstrator, hypothesizing that the younger horses might pay more attention to an older horse. The older horses were mares aged nine years or older and the younger observer horses were two-year-old fillies. The mares were housed with the fillies for three months prior to the experiment, so the horses were familiar with each other. Still the results were not significant.
Previous studies have also found that horses are not very good at social learning.
It seems rather counterintuitive that an animal that naturally lives in a herd is not very good at social learning.
In conclusion, you will not teach a horse anything much by making it watch another horse.
Rørvang, M. V., Ahrendt, L. P., & Christensen, J. W. (2015). Horses fail to use social learning when solving spatial detour tasks. Animal cognition, 1-8.