Our Own Published Research Papers

Who learns from whom?

Most of us who spend a lot of time around horses have seen instances where one horse seems to learn from another and, in fact, there are such cases across the animal kingdom.

So when it comes to horses, is there any pattern as to who learns from whom? Given that foals have to learn what is safe to eat and how to behave in the group, it would make sense for young horses to learn from older ones, but how far does that go?

To find out, or at least to start the process of finding out, we used 30 domestic horses which were divided into 5 groups of 6 individuals, and  one from each group, was chosen as a demonstrator, while the others were observers.

The demonstrators were middle ranking and roughly in the middle of the age range of the group. The demonstrators were then trained to open a feeding apparatus, which they did by pulling a rope that opened a tray with feed in it.

The observers from each group were then allowed to watch their group demonstrator operating the apparatus and eating the food.

We found that young, low-ranking and more exploratory observer horses learned by observing older members of their own group, and the older the observer horse, the more slowly it appeared to learn.

This may be because older animals may avoid the risks of picking up feeding behaviour from younger group members, on the basis that younger horses are less experienced and might eat something dangerous.

It had previously been suggested that horses do not learn from each other in this way. Now it is seems that they do, but that whether they emulate the behaviour of another horse may depend on how they view the other horse. Another important factor is that when testing “learning”, it is important to take the horse’s view into account. Those that didn’t open the apparatus didn’t necessarily fail to learn, they may simply have chosen not to act on it.

The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses (Krüger, K., Farmer, K., Heinze, J. Animal Cognition, 2013)