Horse sense: social status of horses (Equus caballus) affects their likelihood of copying other horses’ behavior
Animals that live in stable social groups need to gather information on their own relative position in the group’s social hierarchy, either by directly threatening or challenging others, or in a less costly manner, by observing interactions among others. Such indirect inference of dominance relationships has previously been reported from primates, rats, and birds and fish. Here, we show that domestic horses, Equus caballus, are similarly capable of social cognition. Taking advantage of a specific “following behavior” that horses show towards humans in a riding arena, we investigated whether bystander horses adjust their response to an experimenter according to the observed interaction and their own dominance relationship with the horse whose reaction to the experimenter they had observed before. Horses copied the following behavior towards an experimenter after watching a dominant horse following, but did not follow after observing a subordinate horse or a horse from another social group doing so. The following behavior which horses show towards an experimenter therefore appears to be affected by the demonstrator’s behavior and social status relative to the observer.
The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses
Social learning is said to meet the demands of complex environments in which individuals compete over resources and co-operate to share resources. Horses (Equus caballus) were thought to lack social learning skills because they feed on homogenously distributed resources with few reasons for conflict. However, the horse's social environment is complex, which raises the possibility that its capacity for social transfer of feeding behaviour has been underestimated. We conducted a social learning experiment using 30 socially kept horses of different ages. Five horses, one from each group, were chosen as demonstrators, and the remaining 25 horses were designated observers. Observers from each group were allowed to watch their group demonstrator opening a feeding apparatus. We found that young, low ranking, and more exploratory horses learned by observing older members of their own group, and the older the horse, the more slowly it appeared to learn. Social learning may be an adaptive specialisation to the social environment. Older animals may avoid the potential costs of acquiring complex and potentially disadvantageous feeding behaviours from younger group members. We argue that horses show social learning in the context of their social ecology, and that research procedures must take such contexts into account. Misconceptions about the horse's sociality may have hampered earlier studies.
Social learning across species: horses (Equus caballus) learn from humans by observation
This study examines whether horses can learn by observing humans, given that they identify individual humans and orientate on the focus of human attention. We tested 24 horses aged between 3 and 12. Twelve horses were tested on whether they would learn to open a feeding apparatus by observing a familiar person. The other 12 were controls and received exactly the same experimental procedure, but without a demonstration of how to operate the apparatus. More horses from the group with demonstration (8/12) reached the learning criterion of opening the feeder twenty times consecutively than horses from the control group (2/12), and younger horses seemed to reach the criterion more quickly. Horses not reaching the learning criteria approached the human experimenters more often than those that did. The results demonstrate that horses learn socially across species, in this case from humans.
Social Learning in Horses: Differs from individual learning only in the learning stimulus and not in the learning mechanism
Equine welfare can be enhanced by applying species specific training. This may incorporate social learning, as horses are highly social and social stimuli are of primary importance. Social learning is comparable to individual learning in its learning mechanisms, differing primarily in the way it is stimulated. Our initial study showed that horses of different breeds (N = 38) follow humans after observing other horses doing so, but only if the observed horse was familiar to and higher ranking than the observer (Fisher’s exact test: N = 12, P = 0.003). A second study showed that horses and ponies (N = 25) learned to pull a rope to open a feeding apparatus after observing demonstrations by conspecifics, again, only if the demonstrating horse was older and higher ranking than the observer (Fisher’s combination test, N = 3, v2 = 27.71, p = 0.006). Our third approach showed that horses and ponies (N = 24) learned to press a switch to open a feeding apparatus after observing a familiar person (GzLM: N = 24, z = 2.33, P = 0.02). Most recently, we confronted horses and ponies (N = 50) with persons demonstrating different techniques for opening a feeding apparatus. In this study we investigated whether the horses would copy the demonstrators’ techniques or apply their own. Here only some horses copied the technique, and most of the successful learners used their mouths irrespective of the demonstrators’ postures (Chi Square Test: N = 40, df = 2, χ2 = 31.4, p < 0.001). In all the approaches social stimuli elicited learning processes in the test horses, while only a few individuals in the control groups mastered the tasks by individual learning. The following behaviour observed in the initial study may have been facilitated by a social stimuli (social facilitation), and the opening of the feed boxes in the subsequent studies appear to be mostly the result of enhancement (social enhancement). Some horses may have used the social stimuli at first and continued their learning process by individual trial and error. However, the horses were also selective in whom and some in how to copy. This may have been conditioned (socially conditioned) or the result of simple forms of reasoning on the reliability of the particular information provided by demonstrators of certain social ranks or social positions, as high ranking and familiar horses and familiar persons were copied and some imitated exactly.
Lay person message: Traditional riding instructions suggest that horses learn by observing other horses. For example, older, more experienced driving horses are used for initial training of young driving horses. We have shown that horses indeed use learning stimuli provided by other horse, as well as by humans. Horses readily accept stimuli observed in high ranking and familiar horses, and familiar persons. Such stimuli elicit learning processes which are comparable to individual learning. We suggest applying social learning whenever possible, as it is much faster and less stressful than individual learning, where learners experience negative outcomes in trial and error learning.