Factors That Slow Learning

How herd rank may affect a horse's capacity to learn new tasks.
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A study from Germany suggests that older and more dominant horses may be slower to learn a task than their younger or more submissive herdmates, but not for the reasons you might assume.

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For the study, the researchers at the University of Regensburg used 30 horses of various ages who had been kept in stable herds for at least the two prior years. The researchers observed the herds, which varied in size, for several days to determine where each horse ranked in the hierarchy.

After collecting this preliminary data, the researchers designated one middle-ranking horse in each group as a “demonstrator” and taught him to open a box that contained food. The other horses in the group were then allowed to watch the horse open the box several times. (In previous studies, the researchers had established that horses can learn tasks by watching each other.) These “observer” horses were then given a chance to open the box themselves as researchers watched. To serve as a control, a mid-rank horse not involved in the first experiment was given access to a closed, food-filled box without having seen it opened by a horse or a person. 

The final data showed that young and low-ranking horses were more likely to open the box after watching herdmates than were older, more domi- nant horses. But, note the researchers, that was simply because they attempted to do so more often. In fact, when older horses did try to open the box, they were just as successful as younger horses. Why certain horses might not be motivated to learn from and copy others is unclear, but the researchers, led by Konstanze Krueger, PhD, present a few theories. First, older horses may be less likely to copy the actions of younger horses, particularly in food-seeking behaviors, because younger horse may spread “misinformation,” such as willingness to eat a dangerous forage that the older herdmates have learned to avoid. Another possibility is that dominant horses don’t need to learn a new way to acquire food because their herd rank already gives them ample access to resources. 

“From an evolutionary point of view, they don’t have to risk learning something wrong because they could monopolize food at any time anyway,” says Krueger.

These findings suggest that future efforts to investigate social learning in horses need to take into account the social status and age of the subjects. But there is also a practical application for people attempting to convince older, more dominant horses to acquire a new skill: “You’ll have to be patient,” Krueger says.

Reference: “The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses,” Animal Cognition, October 2013

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #440.

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