Sunday, September 13, 2015

Social Learning Among Horses--Blessi does an experiment

Scientists have recently started studying social learning among horses. Social learning refers to horses learning from the observation of other creatures--such as horses or humans.   For years scientists were unable to devise a controlled experiment to document that horses learn from observing others--something almost all horse owners give examples of from opening gates to raiding closed feed containers.

Just a few years ago, Dr. Konstanz Krueger and her equine behaviour team at Nürtingen-Geislingen University were able to demonstrate that horses could learn from observing people and other horses.  The horses were more likely to copy behavior from older, more higher ranking herd members.  

Dr. Krueger and her team are now studying innovative behavior in horses--actions in which a horse figures out a problem or develops a solution not typically exhibited by horses. Her team are collecting examples of such innovative behavior from horse owners (it is not too late to submit examples of what your clever Icelandics do). As of June of this year, 304 examples have been submitted including simple tool use.  Check out this page to see a yearling use a brush to groom his dam, a horse open an electric gate by grabbing the three handles of the wires, etc.  At one point the site had a video of horse picking up a stick to sweep out stray hay from under his feed box.

Preliminary review of the innovative equine behaviors exhibited indicate that most are driven by quest for food, desire to escape, social reasons, and maintenance.  As Dr. Krueger explains, "In a nutshell, the horses’ cognitive capacities appear to be underestimated throughout the last decades. The horses’ social complexity is far more elaborate than previously assumed, horses learn socially from conspecific and humans, some of them demonstrate innovative behaviour adaptations to their environment and even simple forms of tool use."


Inspired by this reading, I decided to "play" (in no way was this a scientifically controlled experiment or have any association with the work of Dr. and her team) with Blessi. I first demonstrated to him how to pull a rope to drag a bag of carrots under the fence. He picked this up in under 10 minutes. Once again this was not a controlled experiment so I am sure I was unintentionally giving lots of cues on expected behavior. 

This was Blessi's first attempt to pull a rope using an item other than a bag of carrots--can he transfer his learning to a new object? You may also get a chuckle out of the "psychology joke" that results.

Enjoy, Pamela Nolf

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