Learning by watching: Research shows just how smart horses are

A horse uses a switch to open a feeding box.
A horse uses a switch to open a feeding box.

Can horses really learn just by watching another horse, or by watching you? That’s the question that has puzzled horse owners and trainers for centuries – but now, thanks to scientific research, we can confidently say, they can.

While most people agree that it makes sense to take an older horse along when you are taking a youngster for its first trail ride, it has been unclear whether that is because the older horse keeps the younger one company, or whether the young horse learns and copies the behaviour of the older horse.

In the latest episode of Equine Science Talk, the team unpacks the research on how, and under what circumstances, horses learn from each other. The results are fascinating: A horse learns and copies the behaviour of a demonstrator horse if the demonstrator is older and higher ranking. This has been shown in simple behaviour, such as following a particular person, as well as in highly complex tasks such as opening a feeding box by pulling a rope.

The next step is to look at whether horses learn by watching people, and it has been found that most horses learned to use a switch to open a feeding box some distance away by watching a person do it.

The most recent research examined whether horses would copy the technique of the human demonstrator, that is to say, whether if the person used their head or foot to push a button, would the horse do the same? It seems that in general, horses will use their heads, or rather mouths and lips, for specific manipulation tasks, there were some horses that would use a hoof if the person used their foot.

The research to date opens up many new questions, including the importance of the relationship between the horse and the human, and how horses equate their bodies to ours, for example, if we use our hands for something, does the horse relate that to its head or to its forelegs?

But one thing is already very clear: Horses can and do learn both from each other, and from the people around them, and this has important implications for both welfare and training.

The video channel Equine Science Talk International has been created by three German equine scientists who debunk horse behaviour myths and answer some of the most common questions asked by horse owners.

Professor Konstanze Krüger is Germany’s first professor of equine science and specialist in horse behaviour and cognition; Dr Isabell Marr is a horse trainer and instructor; and Dr Laureen Esch is a veterinarian and equine dentist. Their combined expertise gives unique insights into equine science and its practical application.

The videos have been translated from German by Austrian-based journalist Kate Farmer, a horse trainer and independent equine behaviour researcher.

Watch more from Equine Science Talk International:



Latest research and information from the horse world.

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