Abstract: Equine welfare can be enhanced by applying species specific training. This may incorporate social learning, as horses are highly social and social stimuli are of primary importance. Social learning is comparable to individual learning in its learning mechanisms, differing primarily in the way it is stimulated. Our initial study showed that horses of different breeds (N = 38) follow humans after observing other horses doing so, but only if the observed horse was familiar to and higher ranking than the observer (Fisher's exact test: N = 12, P = 0.003). A second study showed that horses and ponies (N = 25) learned to pull a rope to open a feeding apparatus after observing demonstrations by conspecifics, again, only if the demonstrating horse was older and higher ranking than the observer (Fisher's combination test, N = 3, v2 = 27.71, p = 0.006). Our third approach showed that horses and ponies (N = 24) learned to press a switch to open a feeding apparatus after observing a familiar person (GzLM: N = 24, z = 2.33, P = 0.02). Most recently, we confronted horses and ponies (N = 50) with persons demonstrating different techniques for opening a feeding apparatus. In this study we investigated whether the horses would copy the demonstrators' techniques or apply their own. Here only some horses copied the technique, and most of the successful learners used their mouths irrespective of the demonstrators' postures (Chi Square Test: N = 40, df = 2, χ2 = 31.4, p < 0.001). In all the approaches social stimuli elicited learning processes in the test horses, while only a few individuals in the control groups mastered the tasks by individual learning. The following behaviour observed in the initial study may have been facilitated by a social stimuli (social facilitation), and the opening of the feed boxes in the subsequent studies appear to be mostly the result of enhancement (social enhancement). Some horses may have used the social stimuli at first and continued their learning process by individual trial and error. However, the horses were also selective in whom and some in how to copy. This may have been conditioned (socially conditioned) or the result of simple forms of reasoning on the reliability of the particular information provided by demonstrators of certain social ranks or social positions, as high ranking and familiar horses and familiar persons were copied and some imitated exactly.
Lay person message: Traditional riding instructions suggest that horses learn by observing other horses. For example, older, more experienced driving horses are used for initial training of young driving horses. We have shown that horses indeed use learning stimuli provided by other horse, as well as by humans. Horses readily accept stimuli observed in high ranking and familiar horses, and familiar persons. Such stimuli elicit learning processes which are comparable to individual learning. We suggest applying social learning whenever possible, as it is much faster and less stressful than individual learning, where learners experience negative outcomes in trial and error learning.