Can Horses 'Watch and Learn'?

Watch and learn. It sure seems that horses can do it. One of them figures out how to open the gate to get to your not-so-well-hidden stock of carrots, and then before you know it, they're all getting orange in the muzzle. So can they really learn from each other? Maybe, according to a group of Danish equestrian scientists, but there's nothing certain about it.

"Our first experiment appeared to show a trend suggesting that horses could perhaps learn from each other, but when we moved on to a larger-scale experiment, that tendency was no longer followed," said Line Peerstrup Ahrendt, MSc, former student researcher in the department of animal health and bioscience at Aarhus University in Tjele, during her presentation at the 2011 International Equitation Science Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands.

In the study Ahrendt and her colleagues employed 23 young geldings that had been pastured together for three months and taught one horse how to open a box to get to some food. This horse became the "demonstrator" horse for their learning experiment. Half the other horses were allowed to observe 10 demonstrations where the "demonstrator" opened the box, before being allowed to show if they had learned how to open the box themselves to get to the food. The other half (the control group) had to work out how to open the box by themselves through individual learning (trial and error).

In that study five of the 11 "observer" horses were able to get the food box open, but only one of the 11 control horses could, according to Ahrendt. Encouraged by that result, Ahrendt moved on to a second experiment of the same process with 44 horses of different ages, breeds, and sexes. This experiment involved seven "demonstrator" horses, but only six of the observer horses compared to five of the control horses were able to open the food box.

Despite the many times horse owners have shared with Ahrendt their personal experiences of seeing horses learn tricks from each other, Ahrendt said her research simply cannot confirm that.

"There is still no scientific evidence that horses can learn from observing each other," she said.

Even so, Ahrendt says she hopes to continue research on observational learning in horses, as it could benefit owners in many ways.

"If horses could learn from each other, they could learn from more experienced horses how to operate certain automated devices, such as feed distributors, which are becoming more common in group management of horses these days," she said. "Caretakers could save a lot of time if they didn't have to train each individual horse on these kinds of tasks."

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.