Ecology of Social Learning and Cognition in Horses
Whether animals are able to think is still under discussion. Unfortunately, they are not able to communicate verbally with us. Nevertheless, their communication systems can provide evidence for mental processes. In humans, for instance, in the situation of opening the door for each other, such an act of kindness can tell a lot about the knowledge of the individuals concerning each other.
In our research we focus on the horses' perception of social aspects, on the conclusions the horses draw from it for themselves and the classification of the horses´ cognitive abilities in the animal kingdom. Starting off with controlled test serieses in domestic horses, we will gradually emerge to test the same aspects in feral horses or even wild equids as well as testing the other way around. Basically, research data will be discussed on an interdisciplinary level, which will include the fields of zoology, psychology and philosophy. Furthermore, we will provide a closer look at the ecology and evolution of social behaviour and in terms of the philosophical understanding of rational, mental abilities in animals.
We succeeded in proving social learning abilities in horses. However, horses prefer to learn socially from older, higher ranking well known group mates. Furthermore, they also learn from observing humans, for example, when opening a food box by pushing a light switch. Recent studies indicate that horses do not copy the persons' movements exactly. They rather appear to use the person as an indicator for the location where a mechanism has to be manipulated, such as the light switch. They learn socially through local enhancement and stimulus enhancement. At the moment, the workgroup also studies some horses' abilities in opening locked doors and gates, as well as other innovative solutions for challenges in the horses' environment.
Furthermore the workgroup evaluates sensory and motor laterality in horses. Laterality (not to be mistaken by body asymmetry) promises to provide insight in the mental processing of information of differing quality. As sensory organs are mostly connected with the brain hemispheres of the opposite side, the choice of the sensory organs (left or right) can provide insight in whether the animal chooses to analyse the information with its rather reactive and emotional right brain hemisphere, or with its rational left brain hemisphere. The information quality and the quality of the situation the animals is confronted with effects the side choice for sensory organ use. On the other hand, long lasting effects on the information processing, such as long term stress, cause shifts in the motor laterality. In long lasting stressful situations motor laterality experiences a left shift.
Finally, knowledge about external effects on social behaviour and social cognition allow for improvement suggestions for conventional horse management systems and nature conservation projects.