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How do horses (Equus caballus) learn from observing human action?


A previous study demonstrated that horses can learn socially from observing humans, but could not draw any conclusions about the social learning mechanisms. Here we develop this by showing horses four different human action sequences as demonstrations of how to press a button to open a feed box. We tested 68 horses aged between 3 and 12 years. 63 horses passed the habituation phase and were assigned either to the group Hand Demo (N = 13) for which a kneeling person used a hand to press the button, Head Demo (N = 13) for which a kneeling person used the head, Mixed Demo (N = 12) for which a squatting person used both head and hand, Foot Demo (N = 12) in which a standing person used a foot, or No Demo (N = 13) in which horses did not receive a demonstration. 44 horses reached the learning criterion of opening the feeder twenty times consecutively, 40 of these were 75% of the Demo group horses and four horses were 31% of the No Demo group horses. Horses not reaching the learning criterion approached the human experimenters more often than those who did. Significantly more horses used their head to press the button no matter which demonstration they received. However, in the Foot Demo group four horses consistently preferred to use a hoof and two switched between hoof and head use. After the Mixed Demo the horses’ actions were more diverse. The results indicate that only a few horses copy behaviours when learning socially from humans. A few may learn through observational conditioning, as some appeared to adapt to demonstrated actions in the course of reaching the learning criterion. Most horses learn socially through enhancement, using humans to learn where, and which aspect of a mechanism has to be manipulated, and by applying individual trial and error learning to reach their goal.

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We thank Richard Byrne, Ádam Miklósi and many others for discussing the data, many persons for assisting in the experiments, several horse owners for supplying the experiment with their horses and three anonymous referees and the editor for helping to improve the manuscript.


This study was not funded.

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Correspondence to Konstanze Krueger.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed and approved by the animal welfare board of Nürtingen-Geislingen University. All procedures performed in the study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the ethics committee of Nürtingen-Geislingen University and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Source information for images all the images of the present manuscript (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2, main manuscript, and Fig. ESM 2, Fig ESM 3, Table ESM 1, Table ESM 4 and Table 5, supplementary material) were created from pictures, graphs and tables made by the authors of the present study themselves (PDF 999 kb)

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Bernauer, K., Kollross, H., Schuetz, A. et al. How do horses (Equus caballus) learn from observing human action?. Anim Cogn 23, 1–9 (2020).

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  • Copying
  • Equus caballus
  • Human demonstrator
  • Interspecies specific social learning
  • Social learning
  • Social enhancement