Do horses demonstrate social learning in scary situations?

Do horses demonstrate social learning in scary situations?
17 Apr 2016

Social learning is the process whereby animals learn by observing each other.

Previously, we reported on a study which concluded horses cannot solve a spatial task by watching another horse. This experiment involved a demonstrator horse being led through an open gate to get some food while an observer horse looked on. When the observer horses were released, they took just as many tries to find the gate as control horses who did not watch a demonstration.

Recently, researchers in Denmark undertook a slightly different approach to social learning in horses. They hypothesized, that if the situation was scary, the horse might be more likely to learn socially, as this would make evolutionary sense. For example, if a zebra sees another zebra drink from a river and get attacked by a crocodile, they might decide it is not a good time or place to have a drink.

In this experiment, a fence was set up with an opening, and in the opening, a piece of linen cloth was placed on the ground. On the other side of the opening were two full feed buckets. There was an observer group of horses and a control group of horses.

Each observer horse watched as a demonstrator horse was lead across the linen, to eat from the feed bucket on the other side. The observer horse was then released and given 3 x 1-minute opportunities to cross the linen and eat from one of the feed buckets on the other side. In the control version of the experiment, the control horse saw the demonstrator horse on the other side of the linen eating but did not see the demonstrator cross the linen.

All of the horses in the study were successful in completing the task on their first try. There was no difference between observers and controls. Accordingly appears the task was too easy to be able to differentiate the horses. However, the observer horses did have significantly lower heart rates than the controls, indicating that they were more relaxed about crossing the linen.

The researchers believe that a slightly scarier task or different breed could be used, and this might produce better results (i.e. a more obvious success rate in completion of the task for observer horses). In this particular study, Icelandic horses were used. Interestingly, a previous similar study was undertaken with warmblood horses, and only 48% of the subjects would cross the linen, suggesting that spookiness between breeds is a potential factor that must be taken into account in experiments involving novel objects.

Reference
Rørvang, M. V., Ahrendt, L. P., & Christensen, J. W. (2015). A trained demonstrator has a calming effect on naïve horses when crossing a novel surface. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 171, 117-120.

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