Learning by watching

How nice would it be if your horse could learn to load easily onto the trailer, just by having him watch another horse loading easily? Unfortunately, this is not quite the way the horse’s brain works, but there is increasing evidence that horses can learn from one another through observation. 


Learning from each other through observation is also known as ‘social learning’. There are many more known examples of social learning in other animal species. For example, there are chimpanzees living in the west of the Sassandra-N’Zo river on the Ivory Coast that use stones to crack open nuts. However, the chimpanzees living to the east of the river do not. You might think that the living environment of the chimpanzees is different (no stones present) or that there is a difference in genes. This turned out not to be the case, as no genetic differences were found and the same nuts and stones were available in both areas. So in all probability, one chimpanzee discovered that you can open nuts using stones as a tool. The rest of the group then taught themselves by observing and imitating. Social learning has also been observed in birds. Some bird species learn a certain ‘dialect’ in their song through imitation. Research showed that young male birds could only learn the dialect if they heard adult birds sing in this dialect. 


But what about horses? Can they also learn through observation? Research has shown that especially younger, lower-ranked horses could learn by observing older horses in their herd. The older the horse, the less quick they would appear to learn by watching others. Other studies have also shown this. The horses were taught to open a box of food by pulling on a rope. ‘Model’ horses were used, who had already learned this behaviour. This research shows that the younger horses followed the older, more experienced horses’ example, but older horses were not as quick to learn by observing their younger peers. More about this research click here.


Let’s face it, we are not going to see training stables where one Grand Prix combination is training in the arena and 30 young horses are learning all the same moves by watching from the side line anytime soon. But you could, for example, take this into account in the composition of your herd. Putting young horses in with older horses may well teach them useful skills. For example, drinking from automatic drinkers. 


We once received an e-mail about a bottle-raised foal. The foal had no normal drinking reflex and drank a bit like a dog would. Because the owners had wanted to keep a close eye on the animal, they had him in a stable with a large bucket of water, so that they could monitor how much the colt drank. This did not go well at all and it turned out that the foal was taking in far too little water. The last option to help the foal was to put him in a herd in the hope that he would learn something from the other horses. Within a day, the foal learned how to drink normally. A case of social learning? There could almost be no other explanation, right? 

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