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The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses


Social learning is said to meet the demands of complex environments in which individuals compete over resources and cooperate to share resources. Horses (Equus caballus) were thought to lack social learning skills because they feed on homogenously distributed resources with few reasons for conflict. However, the horse’s social environment is complex, which raises the possibility that its capacity for social transfer of feeding behaviour has been underestimated. We conducted a social learning experiment using 30 socially kept horses of different ages. Five horses, one from each group, were chosen as demonstrators, and the remaining 25 horses were designated observers. Observers from each group were allowed to watch their group demonstrator opening a feeding apparatus. We found that young, low-ranking and more exploratory horses learned by observing older members of their own group, and the older the horse, the more slowly it appeared to learn. Social learning may be an adaptive specialisation to the social environment. Older animals may avoid the potential costs of acquiring complex and potentially disadvantageous feeding behaviours from younger group members. We argue that horses show social learning in the context of their social ecology and that research procedures must take such contexts into account. Misconceptions about the horse’s sociality may have hampered earlier studies.

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We thank Michael Tomasello, Kurt Kotrschal, Christian Schloegel, Richard Byrne, Christine Nicol and Becky Hothersall for helpful discussions, Knut Krüger for helping with statistical analyses, Gudrun Schneider, Andreas Sailer, Anja Schlecht, Magdalena Schneider, and Stephanie Leopold for assistance at the experiments, as well as Sonja und Andreas Nieling, Karin Stadtherr, Tobias Knoll, Alexandra Stupperich, Elisabeth and Marion Klein, Nina Streek, Christina Bachfisch and Andrea Schöpe for providing us with horses. Finally, we would like to thank the Dr. Peter Deubner Stiftung for financial support.

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Correspondence to Konstanze Krueger.

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Supplementary material 1 (PDF 57 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (PDF 98 kb)

Video ESM 3: Demonstrator Training

The training phase of independent demonstration is reached. The demonstrator is first led to the experimental apparatus and then approaches the apparatus and opens the drawer independently by itself (AVI 151 Mb)

Video ESM 4: Successful learner

A learner horse pulls the rope, opens and feeds from the drawer after demonstration (AVI 143 Mb)

Supplementary material 5 (PDF 31 kb)

Supplementary material 6 (PDF 22 kb)

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Krueger, K., Farmer, K. & Heinze, J. The effects of age, rank and neophobia on social learning in horses. Anim Cogn 17, 645–655 (2014).

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  • Horse
  • Social learning
  • Sociality
  • Ecology
  • Social relationships