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The intelligence of horses may have been under-estimated, a German researcher believes, after an experiment delving into the social learning abilities of equines.
Research, led by Professor Konstanze Krüger at the University of Nürtingen in Germany, has shown that it is, indeed, possible to use an older horse to teach a younger horse new tricks.
Scientists have always assumed that horses were incapable of “social learning” – that is, learning from a demonstrator horse, because they have always failed to learn the tasks presented.
Social learning is usually considered to be a sign of higher intelligence, and therefore horses were put low on the “intelligence” scale.
However, maybe that was because of the task presented, and not because of horses’ ability to learn.
A study led by Krüger has shown that horses can, and will, learn a complex task from a demonstrator horse when certain criteria were met.
Krüger tested 25 horses in five groups in their ability to learn to operate a feed box simply by watching another member of their group do it.
To operate the box, the horse had to pull a rope that opened a drawer at the other end of the box. The drawer contained a food treat that the horse was allowed to eat it when it opened the drawer.
She chose demonstrator horses that were average in their groups in terms of rank and age, and found that the horses which learned were younger, and generally lower ranking, than the demonstrator.
In fact, 10 of the 14 the horses which were younger than their demonstrator learned the task, and only two of the 11 who were older did. Interestingly, even these two were only a little older than the demonstrator.
To check that the horses weren’t just working it out for themselves, she also had a control experiment, in which 14 horses saw food being put in the box, but were not shown how to open it by a demonstrator. Of these horses only two worked out how to open the box on their own.
Krüger concludes that the intelligence of horses, and probably many other species, has been seriously underestimated by using tests that do not take the animals’ social structure and motivations into account.
She proposes that younger horses may follow the example of their older and more experienced companions, but older horses do not follow the example of less experienced companions.
This makes horse-sense, Kruger suggests: for example, older horses have learned which foods are safe to eat, so it is safe to do the same, but younger horses might make mistakes and eat dangerous foods, so it is not a good idea to follow their lead.
It may therefore not be a matter of learning, but rather a choice as to whether or not to follow the example.
In practical terms, this study supports the old theory that you can use an older horse to give a young horse confidence in new situations, and maybe older horses can help in the training process in other ways, too.
Kruger and her fellow researchers said the horse’s social environment was complex, which raised the possibility that its capacity for social transfer of feeding behavior had been underestimated.
Social learning may be an adaptive specialisation to the social environment, they said.
“We argue that horses show social learning in the context of their social ecology and that research procedures must take such contexts into account,” they said in their paper, published in the journal, Animal Cognition.
“Misconceptions about the horse’s sociality may have hampered earlier studies,” they said.
Krueger K, Farmer K, Heinze J (2013) The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses. Animal Cognition 1–11. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0696-x