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Social Learning in Horses By Kentucky Equine Research Staff · January 20, 2014

Social learning—picking up knowledge by watching what another animal does—is a known skill in some animals, but there have been questions as to whether horses could learn this way. New studies by a researcher at the University of Nürtingen in Germany have indicated that in the right setting, horses can actually use this type of learning to accomplish a task.

Social learning is seen as an indicator of higher intelligence, and horses had scored low on previous tests of this ability. However, it’s now thought that the design of these trials, not the horse’s ability to learn, may have been at fault. To perform well, a horse must see that there is a desirable reward for acting in a certain way, and also must clearly understand how to accomplish the task. Social ranking and age may be additional factors in this type of learning, according to the results of the trial.  

In the trial, 25 horses were allowed to watch as food was placed in a box and than a demonstrator horse pulled a rope to open a drawer in the box to access the food. Horses to be used as demonstrators were chosen because they ranked in the middle of their social groups by age and status.

Among horses that watched the demonstrator horse, 14 learned the task after watching it performed. Ten of these horses were younger than the demonstrator horse. Of the 11 horses that were older, only 2 learned the task, and these horses were only slightly older than the demonstrator horse. Horses that learned the task were also generally lower in social rank than the demonstrator horse.

As a control, a group of 14 horses saw food placed in the box, but the demonstration of how to access the food was not used. Of these horses, only two learned to open the drawer by pulling on the rope.

The researchers concluded that younger horses of low social rank are more likely than older, higher-ranking horses to watch and imitate the actions of animals that outrank them or are older. Conversely, animals of greater age and rank do not look to those of lower status to learn behaviors.

For undomesticated horses that live in herds, watching older and more experienced horses is a survival tool for younger horses as they learn what foods to eat, where to go for water, and how to find shelter from bad weather. Foals pick up the rules of social behavior from their peers and also from older horses in the herd. Riders and trainers use this same setting to give confidence to a young or inexperienced horse. Getting a green horse to follow an older, more experienced horse into a trailer or across a creek is a safe method of introducing new situations, and taking a quiet equine along on a young horse’s first trail ride or drive is a common safety precaution.