How your horse learns by watching you

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As you go about your daily barn chores---opening gates and turning on lights---keep in mind that your horses may be watching, and possibly learning how to do these things for themselves. 

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German researchers discovered that horses could learn to press a switch to open a box simply by watching humans do it. The work, done at the University of Regensburg, involved 24 horses of various breeds between the ages of 3 and 12, all of which had at least three months of ground training.

For the study, the horses were led into a round pen that included a specially designed feed box that could be opened only if a switch, mounted on a post three feet away, was pressed. The box was already open when the horses were first led into the pen, and they were allowed to eat the apples, carrots and treats inside to ensure they knew it contained food.

The box was then closed and half of the horses (the experiment group) watched a familiar human demonstrator press the switch to open the lid. The demonstrator then walked over to the box, removed an apple or carrot and ate it while the horse observed. “We know from a previous study that horses adjust their attention best at well-known persons,” says Konstanze Krueger, PhD. “That’s the reason we chose [familiar] persons for the demonstrations.”

After the horses watched the demonstrator open the box, it was closed again. The horses were then released and allowed to explore the area, including the switch and the box, for three minutes. If a horse did not open the box in that time, it was led back to the starting point, allowed to observe the demonstrator again and then given another chance to open the box. (The other dozen horses, who served as controls, were allowed to explore the switch and box without a human demonstrating how to open the box first.) 

To learn the task, horses participated in 10 to 20 such trials each day, for a maximum of 120 trials spread out over two weeks. The researchers noted how many trials it took for each horse to approach the switch, then to open the box. Horses were considered to have learned the task when they opened the box using the switch 20 times in a row---10 with demonstrations and 10 without. 

Ultimately, eight of the 12 horses in the experimental group learned to open the box after watching a human press the switch. Horses used a variety of techniques to press the switch, including licking it, grabbing it with their teeth, pressing it with the upper lip and pawing at it. One horse, a mare named Plume, opened the box on her second trial, while a mare named Camilla was the slowest learner and required 52 trials to open the box. 

Only two of the 12 horses in the control group, which had not observed a human demonstrator, learned to open the box by pressing the switch. This, the researchers say, indicates that the horses learned by observing the human demonstrator. 

“We should be aware that horses watch pretty much all we do, and they seem to be well equipped to copy quite a lot of it,” says Krueger. “They copy social behavior, but they also copy us in manipulating things, opening doors, fences, electric fences, feed containers, light switches and much more. Whether this can be used for training horses needs to be proven, but there are trainers who are convinced that social learning can also be used for training purposes.”

Reference: “Social learning across species: Horses (Equus caballus) learn from humans by observations,” Animal Cognition, November 2016

This article was originally published the March 2016 issue, Volume #474 of EQUUS magazine