Social transmission of information in horses

During my master I worked on different aspects of social transfer of information between horses. I carried out two experiments at AU Foulum investigating different aspects of social transmission of behaviour. Both experiments were performed on young Icelandic Horses, which were kindly lent from private owners.

I am grateful for your assistance. Without you these studies had not been possible.

First experiment investigated whether young Icelandic horses could learn a spatial detour task through observation of a trained demonstrator horse of either the same age (Experiments 1 and 2, n = 22) or older (Experiment 3, n = 24). Observer horses were allowed to observe the demonstrator being led three times through the detour route immediately before being given the opportunity to solve the task themselves. Controls were allowed only to observe the demonstrator horse eating at the final position, but not the demonstration of the route. Although we found a tendency towards better performance by observer horses in the second experiment, we were unable to repeat this result in a similar set-up with a new group of horses and older, dominant demonstrator horses. We conclude that horses exposed to prior demonstration did not perform better than control horses in solving spatial detour tasks.

The second experiment investigated if demonstration by a habituated demonstrator horse influenced the willingness of young Icelandic horses (n = 22, 3 years old) to cross a novel surface. Observer horses (n = 11) were allowed to observe the similarly aged demonstrator horse being led five times across a novel surface. Immediately afterwards the observer horses were given the opportunity to cross the novel surface themselves to obtain food on the other side. Controls (n = 11) were allowed to observe the demonstrator eating on the opposite side of the novel surface but not the demonstration of crossing the novel surface. All observers and controls succeeded the task, but observers had significantly lower average and maximum heart rate, compared to controls. This result suggests a calming effect of the demonstration, which could be exploited for habituation training of horses in fear-eliciting situations.

Both studies are published and can be found here: Publications

Project manager: Dr. Janne Winther Christensen, Aarhus University.

Thank you for providing me this great opportunity!