Horse News

Feel Good Sunday: Study Indicates Horses Learn by Watching Humans

By Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA as published on TheHorse

“Could be good, could be bad…”

“For those of us who live with equines this study highlights something that we have known for quite some time…’how did he get out of the stall, how did he open the door to the tack room, how did he get the locked lid off the feed can?’.  These are all questions we have asked only to come back to the simple realization that our equine companions are often smarter than we are, or so it seems…particularly after sipping on a few industrial sized glasses of Wrangler Iced Tea.  Enjoy!” ~ R.T.

Ethan's Soul by Terry Fitch of Wild Horse Freedom FederationWhen you’re at the barn, do you ever feel you’re being watched? Watched, specifically, by a certain quadruped with eyes on the sides of his head? If so, better be careful how you latch that gate, open that feed bin, or untie that leadline. Researchers have confirmed what we’ve all suspected for years: Horses do, indeed, learn from watching their humans.

“(Our) results demonstrate that horses learn socially across species, in this case from humans,” said the research group, led by Konstanze Krueger, PhD, of the University of Regensburg, in Germany.

Specifically, the horses in their experiment learned that it’s possible to open a box of feed by watching humans opening the box, they said. However, the team isn’t certain the horses actually copied what the humans did. Rather, they might have been more determined to try different tasks to figure it out—as if to say, “Well if the human can do it, so can I.”

Krueger; Aurelia Schuetz, a PhD candidate at Nuertingen-Geislingen University, in Germany; and Kate Farmer, MA, of the University of St Andrews, in Scotland, employed 24 horses with at least three months of basic equitation training.

The team introduced each horse, in his home environment, to a plastic box containing a small amount of feed. When the horse wasn’t looking, they closed the box with a wooden lid. The only way to open the box again was by pushing a white electric switch placed on a wooden structure about 3 feet from the box.

The team then divided the horses into two groups. Half the horses could watch a familiar human demonstrator (someone who’d been caring for the horse for at least a year) press the switch to open the box. These horses could watch their humans open the box multiple times per day for up to two weeks—with a maximum of 120 demonstrations, Krueger said.

The other half could not see any demonstrations of the switch and served as controls, she said. However, their familiar handlers were present in the testing area with them.

Only two of the 12 control horses figured out how to open the box consistently, Krueger said. They did this through trial and error.

Eight of the 12 horses in the demonstration group learned how to open the box consistently. They might have used trial and error, as well, but they appeared more determined to find the solution, Krueger said: “They bit it, pressed it with their upper lip, played with it with the upper lip, licked it, and pressed it with their hoof,” the researchers stated.

The team found that younger horses were more likely to learn the task than older ones, a finding consistent with Krueger’s previous research indicating that younger horses appear more capable of social learning than their older counterparts.

And the horses that didn’t learn the task? Regardless of which group they were in, they seemed to be “expecting” something from the humans, the researchers added.

“The control horses which received no demonstration searched for more contact with the experimenters than horses of the experimental group,” they stated. “Alternatively, the horses’ behavior may have been affected by previous experiences in which persons may have solved problems for them, and may have expected the person to provide the solution.”

The study, “Social learning across species: horses (Equus caballus) learn from humans by observation,” will appear in an upcoming issue of Animal Cognition.

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