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Social Learning in Horses—Fact or Fiction?

By Maria V. Rørvang, Janne W. Christensen, Jan Ladewig, Andrew McLean

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Abstract

Prima facie, the acquisition of novel behaviors in animals through observation of conspecifics seems straightforward. There are, however, various mechanisms through which the behavior of animals can be altered from observing others. These mechanisms range from simple hard-wired contagious processes to genuine learning by observation, which differ fundamentally in cognitive complexity. They range from social facilitation and local enhancement to true social learning. The different learning mechanisms are the subject of this review, largely because research on learning by observation can be confounded by difficulties in interpretation owing to the looming possibility of associative learning infecting experimental results. While it is often assumed that horses are capable of acquiring new behavior through intra-species observation, research on social learning in horses includes a variety of studies some of which may overestimate the possession of higher mental abilities. Assuming such abilities in their absence can have welfare implications, e.g., isolating stereotypical horses on the assumption that these behaviors can be learned though observation by neighboring horses. This review summarizes the definitions and criteria for the various types of social transmission and social learning and reviews the current documentation for each type in horses with the aim of clarifying whether horses possess the ability to learn through true social learning. As social ungulates, horses evolved in open landscapes, exposed to predators and grazing most of the day. Being in close proximity to conspecifics may theoretically offer an opportunity to learn socially, however anti-predator vigilance and locating forage may not require the neural complexity of social learning. Given the significant energetic expense of brain tissue, it is likely that social facilitation and local enhancement may have been sufficient in the adaptation of equids to their niche. As a consequence, social learning abilities may be maladaptive in horses. Collectively, the review proposes a novel differentiation between social transmission (social facilitation, local, and stimulus enhancement) and social learning (goal emulation, imitation). Horses are undoubtedly sensitive to intra-species transfer of information but this transfer does not appear to satisfy the criteria for social learning, and thus there is no solid evidence for true social learning in horses.

Submitter

Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Publication Title Frontiers in Veterinary Science
Volume 5
Pages 8
DOI 10.3389/fvets.2018.00212
URL https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2018.00212/full
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Maria V. Rørvang; Janne W. Christensen; Jan Ladewig; Andrew McLean (2018), "Social Learning in Horses—Fact or Fiction?," http://habricentral.org/resources/63829.

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Tags
  1. Animal roles
  2. Cognition
  3. Horses
  4. Mammals
  5. open access
  6. Pets and companion animals
  7. Social Facilitation
  8. social learning
  9. training
  10. transmission
  11. welfare
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  1. open access