Most equine scientists would concur that social learning – where an individual learns a new behaviour by watching another individual perform it – does not occur in horses (or most other animals). Social learning is a sophisticated cognitive process; it requires the individual to see, attend to and understand the results of the demonstrator’s behaviour, gain insight about its relevance to their own motivations, transfer it to their own repertoire and finally to perform it.
Yet, how many of us have observed one clever pony seemingly showing another how to undo the latch from the barren sand paddock out to the laminitis-inducing spring pasture? Researchers suggest that what we are seeing in these apparent pony teaching seminars is social facilitation, where a behaviour (such as muzzle messing with the gate latch) is stimulated in another by the performance of that behaviour in one or more individuals. The emphasis is on stimulation of an existing behaviour (as when one horse rolling will precipitate a rolling frenzy from the entire group) rather than learning a new behaviour.
Maria Rørvang (2017), from Aarhus University, studied 22 young Icelandic horses, outfitted with a heart rate monitor, that had to freely cross a plastic tarp to access a bucket of food. Half of the horses watched a “demonstrator” perform the task first, while controls did not. All the horses learned to cross the tarp in the same amount of time, with or without the advantage of a demonstrator, suggesting that no social learning was occurring. However, the horses that had watched the demonstrator did so with significantly lower heart rates than controls; apparently, the calm demonstrator facilitated a similar calm behaviour in the observers.
This social facilitation of calmness is also evidenced in the transmission of a mare’s behaviour to her foal. Janne Winther Christensen (2014), from Denmark, trained pregnant mares to become ho-hum about potentially frightening objects such as tarps, umbrellas and plastic bag massages. After foaling, the experimental foals observed their habituated mothers being exposed to these same stimuli; controls did not have these sessions. Although the foals themselves were not handled, when later tested with these objects, and with novel objects (that they had not seen with their mothers), the foals of habituated mothers were much less reactive than those that had not had this advantage.
French equine researchers Séverine Henry and Martine Hausberger also found that mares that experienced positive human attention in the first five days after foaling had foals that were more welcoming of human contact and more amenable to training than unhandled mares, even though the foals themselves had had no human interaction (2015).
Whether these foals were experiencing social facilitation or social learning is a distinction unlikely to be relevant outside of equine science conferences and academic journals. The message to breeders: desensitize your mare to as many scary things as possible. Rather than having to habituate each new crop of foals to various novel situations, the once-trained mare can pass on her nonchalant behaviour to her foals year after year.
Common “horseman’s wisdom” has it that horses can teach another horse stereotypical behaviours (chronic, in variant patterns of behaviour that appear to serve no useful purpose, such as cribbing or weaving). Afflicted horses are typically isolated to keep the behaviour from “spreading.” However, social learning of stereotypies has never been substantiated, and most equine researchers believe the behaviour is not contagious. Horses may inherit a genetic predisposition to crib (Thoroughbreds are more likely candidates for cribbing than other breeds, and the tendency appears to run higher in certain family lines), which may be subsequently triggered by a stressor in the environment, such as a high-concentrate diet, too much time in a stall and social isolation. If it appears that a horse has “learned” to crib from another, what is more likely is that the adverse environment that created the stereotypy in one horse will do so in another. Sadly, segregation compromises the stereoptyic horse still further, as isolation was undoubtedly a significant contributor in fostering the stereotypy in the first place.
Although to date we have not found strong evidence of equine social learning, it does not necessarily mean it’s not there. Those genius pony escape artists do seem to be teaching a pretty good escape seminar to their cohorts in crime. Maybe one day soon we scientists will be able to measure it.