Ask a Spartan Series: Could horses learn from other horses on TV?

Given that horses often mimic one another, is it possible a horse could learn from another horse on TV?

This article was written as an assignment in ANS 242 Introductory Horse Management at Michigan State University, under the guidance of Course Instructor Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.  Have a question for future classes?  Please e-mail them to kwaite@msu.edu.

Although many behaviors our equine friends display seem contagious, evidence suggests most horses do not learn from watching each other (Brubaker and Udell, 2016). However, horses are more willing to follow a human after watching a familiar, more dominant horse do so (Kreuger and Heinze, 2008). This taming effect some horses have on each other may be why many trainers have success when training a green horse with an older, experienced horse. Even if the green horse isn’t learning any particular skills from their superior, they can pick up on the other horse’s comfort with the handler and feel more willing to participate. Not enough research has been done on social learning in horses, so it is possible that one horse is teaching its equine companion complex skills and not just modeling good manners.

Another aspect to consider is the processing rate, or flicker fusion, of the horse brain. Most film is displayed in 24 frames per second (measured in fps/hz), which is the minimum, or critical flicker fusion (CFF), that appears to flow realistically to humans. No research has been done on the CFF of horses, but the CFF of sheep seems to be over 80 hz (Ezra-Elia et al. 2014), and it’s commonly known dogs require 70 hz, cats 100 hz. This means that normal human TV is too slow to make sense to our companion animals, and appears in a “picture, black screen, picture” sequence. So even if a colt can learn to kick down a fence by watching a stallion, he probably won’t learn it from watching Spirit.

Even though science hasn’t yet proven whether horses can learn from watching each other on television, there is anecdotal evidence that perhaps they do process what is happening on the TV. There is a video where show jumper ‘Belly Bumps’ watches horses jumping on TV. She is in foal, and can’t jump as much as she’d like to, but bobs her head enthusiastically every time the pony on the TV sails over an obstacle. Even if Belly watched and mimicked the other horse, could she repeat a more complex task the other horse did?

Studies by Dr. Krueger say yes, under the right conditions. Dr Krueger found that lower-ranking horses were able to learn certain behaviors from watching higher-ranking herd members. After watching an older herd member open a drawer containing food by a rope; younger, adventurous horses were able to learn to open the drawer (Krueger et al. 2014). The younger members learned faster than their long-toothed counterparts, too! However, dominant herd members would not repeat the same task if demonstrated by a younger or subordinate horse. So, the fancy horse-lady who puts a high-def TV in her pampered pony’s trailer might be onto something, but she’d be better off using film of horses hers know and trust.

Even if horses are not able to learn complex skills through film, the art still shows potential promise in improving horse welfare. As we know, horses are herd animals and crave companionship of other horses. In many contemporary settings, or in cases of illness, it may be hard to provide horses with the social contact they psychologically need. In these times, turning on the TV may be a temporary, if feeble, replacement for true friendship. Further experimentation should be done to determine the warrant of screen-time as equine enrichment, especially considering the rumoured “mind melting” effects television and video games have on people. In the meantime, some stimulation is probably better than no stimulation, so letting your gelding watch TV occasionally is probably not going to damage his brain.

As for the best way to train horses, a 2012 Study by Fowler et al. found Monty Roberts’ “join-up” technique to be more effective and less stressful to the animals than traditional UK techniques for starting horses. Roberts’ controversial, natural-horsemanship-based method was developed after years of experience observing equine behavior in the wild and various captive scenarios. Roberts method to starting a horse centered around using what he called the “language Equus” wherein respecting the horse’s space and the removal of pressure are key. One of Roberts most successful followers, Buck Brannaman, sums up his philosophy as “gentle in what you do, firm in how you do it,” in his film Buck. Perhaps these trainers would be the best to approach for further exploration of social learning in horses, and whether it can be accomplished through the silver screen. Until such studies are done, only ‘Belly Bump’ and other TV-exposed equines can know if film has a place in the arena.


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