Pony see, pony do: Study finds horses adept at learning by seeing

A horse opening a box after observing a human.
A horse opening a box after observing a human.

Horses are able to learn how to perform tasks by watching their human handlers, a new study from Germany suggests.

Horses in the study from the University of Nürtingen Geislingen learned how to open a feed box by watching a human do it.

The researchers set up a task that involved pressing a button to open a box containing pieces of carrot and apple, and the horses were shown various techniques for pressing the button to open the box by their owners. Some owners used their head to press the button, some their hand, some their foot, and some used their head and hand together.

It is already known that horses can learn by watching a demonstrator, but the question was, would the horses follow the particular demonstrated technique, or come up with their own?

While almost all seemed to understand the connection between the pressing the button and the box opening from watching their owner, some followed the same technique while others found their own methods by trial and error. For example, if the person used their foot to press the button, some horses would use a hoof, but others would use their head, or a mixture of head and hoof.

Methods of opening the box were demonstrated by a human.
Methods of opening the box were demonstrated by a human.

The study has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

In the control group, which received no demonstration at all, a few horses managed to solve the problem on their own, showing an ability to “think outside the box”.

“This means we have to be very careful about what we let our horses see, if we don’t want them to learn how to open gates, doors, or even feed boxes. Of course, however careful we are, there’s no guarantee that a few of them won’t work it out for themselves,” the researchers said.

The team noted that horses are well suited as subjects for the study of interspecies social learning from humans, as their domestication 3000-5000 years ago may have shaped their inter-species communication abilities. “Since Clever Hans, the ‘counting horse’, was revealed to have ‘solved’ mathematical tasks by using human facial and body cues as signals for when to start and stop tapping his hoof, it has been shown that domestic horses are able to use human pointing gestures to find food, and that they orientate on the direction of human attention.”

One of the researchers in this study, Professor Konstanze Krueger from the equine economics department of University of Nürtingen Geislingen, was lead author in an earlier study on the ability of horses to open door and gate mechanisms.

The full research team also comprised Kira Bernauer and Hanna Kollross from Nürtingen-Geislingen University, Auriela Schuetz from Georg-August-University Goettingen, and Kate Farmer from St Andrews University in Scotland.

Bernauer K, Kollross H, Schuetz A, Farmer K, Krueger K (2019) How do horses (Equus caballus) learn from observing human action?  Animal Cognition . doi: 10.1007/s10071-019-01310-0




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