Visual demonstration failed to help horses learn a task, findings show

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An Overview of the experimental design and devices.  Images: Rørvang et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10020221

Horses in a study failed to learn from humans how to open a box containing food.

Those given a full demonstration of how to open the box did no better than the horses given a partial demonstration, or no demonstration at all.

Maria Vilain Rørvang, Tina Bach Nielsen and Janne Winther Christensen, writing in the open-access journal Animals, note that some studies suggest that horses can learn new behavior from observing humans.

“However, scientific findings are conflicting.”

Their experiment, carried out in a lunging ring at a private stud in Denmark, used one demonstrator and 30 Icelandic horses, comprising 21 mares, four stallions and five geldings. They were aged 4 to 18.

The horses were randomly assigned to receive either a full demonstration on how to open the box containing food, a partial demonstration, or no demonstration at all.

To open the box, the horses had to touch the top of a tube positioned one metre from the box.

The full demonstration involved the person approaching and touching the top of the tube for two seconds, at which point the box lid opened. The demonstrator then picked up a handful of feed from the box.

In the partial demonstration, the person approached the tube and stood for two seconds, but did not touch it. The box opened while the demonstrator stood at the tube. They then went over and picked up some feed.

In the no-demonstration phase, the person did not approach the tube or the box.

Before the experiment, the horses were made familiar with the set-up in the ring, with the lid open on the box. Horses that walked directly to the box were allowed to eat three mouthfuls of the feed.

When the experiment began, in which the horses had one minute to solve the task, the success and behavior of the horses were observed, with the action recorded.

The horses were given multiple trials, and had to demonstrate several successes in a row to be deemed to have learned the task.

“Horses watching the full and partial demonstrations were not more successful in solving the task than horses receiving no human demonstration,” the trio reported.

The number of trials needed to accomplish the first opening of the box and to comply with the learning criteria were also unaffected by whether they received a demonstration.

“Thus, in practical horse training, one should not expect horses to be readily able to solve an instrumental task, such as opening a feed box, following demonstration by a human.”

They noted that the horses who were unsuccessful in accessing the food showed more human and box-oriented behavior than the successful horses, perhaps indicating their motivation to solve the task and/or their frustration from being unable to solve it.

“The human-oriented behavior expressed by unsuccessful horses may reflect them seeking human assistance, as also suggested in previous studies, but this would need to be confirmed in a larger study.”

“Our study suggests that the horses did not benefit from human demonstration of how to open a box to find food,” they concluded.

Rørvang is with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; Nielsen and Christensen are with Aarhus University in Denmark.

Rørvang, M.V.; Nielsen, T.B.; Christensen, J.W. Horses Failed to Learn from Humans by Observation. Animals 2020, 10, 221.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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