Horse owners have helped researchers confirm tool use in horses.
You may have seen viral videos circulating online of a horse picking up brushes to groom another horse, or another using a broom to “sweep” the floor. They are nor just incredibly amusing, these videos herald a breakthrough in equine science.
Historically, tool use was considered a typically human behaviour, but over recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that other animals employ tools too. Researchers are interested in studying the differences between tool use in humans and non-human animals, because of what it can reveal about each species’ brain structures and learning abilities.
Tool use by animals is defined as “any object used and manipulated by an animal in order to perform a specific task”. These tasks can be related to gaining food and water, self-defence, grooming, play, communication, or construction. Tool use in any animal gains a lot of attention from scientific researchers, seeing as it was understood that only humans could use tools before the 1950s.
There are varying levels of tool use in animals, that range from simple, such as using a stick to groom the animal, or can become complex, such as chimpanzees using stones to crack open nuts. But until now, there was no scientific evidence to show horses can use tools at any level.
What did the researchers find in horses?
In past surveys, horse owners had reported that their horses had devised innovative solutions for dealing with complicated feeders and environmental restrictions in movement, social contact, and foraging – for example, by opening locked gates and doors and kicking a tree to shake the apples off. But it was only this year, that German zoologist and behaviour researchers Konstansze Krueger, Laureen Trager, Kate Farmer and Richard Byrne confirmed 13 cases of tool use in 12 horses and 1 mule out of 1014 cases. They published their findings in the open access journal Animals.
The team of researchers used a crowdsourcing approach, where they asked horse owners to observe and document ‘unusual’ behaviour by video and a questionnaire. Along with this, they reviewed online videos of equids showing tool use. A typical research approach, such as observing horses who perform tool use is difficult, due to the rarity of the situation.
Most of the tool use behaviour that was reported was based around attempting to gain access to forage and social contact with other horses, there were lesser attempts of using tools to gain access to pasture or comfort, for example, grooming themselves.
It is worth noting that most of the horses would perform tool use based around what they were reported to be restricted from. For example, if they had restricted forage, they would use a stick or tool to try and reach forage, which was the most common example of tool use in this study.
The researchers suggest: “These horses may be attempting to improve their situation where certain management conditions are restricted”
However, although the researchers stated they took care to exclude unreliable or biased reports, they highlighted the risk of bias in this present study, as they gathered information from horse owners who may have reinforced or rewarded the behaviour they saw, or the horse carried out a behaviour which accidentally achieved a reward – which would not make it true tool use.
An example of accidental learning is the horse who is playing with a stick, and accidentally moves around the hay that is out or reach, and it comes closer to them, they are now able to reach the hay and, over time, learn and develop this behaviour to reach the hay – which is not true tool use but simple trial and error learning and pairing (classical conditioning), where they have paired moving the stick with retrieving hay.
Simple tool use requires a higher level of learning ability and has been defined to be made up of different elements, rather than just repeated accidental and successful experiences. Let’s explain the difference with some examples…
Horses are able to carry out:
Learning – trial and error and pairing situations.
For example, a horse is bored in their stable so performs oral behaviour by moving around their stable door bolt during the day. After many times, they accidentally open the bolt and release themselves from the stable. They have paired playing with the bolt and being released from the stable as a good thing, so they are likely to repeat it.
Horses have not been shown to carry out:
Reasoning – a process of thinking rationally by applying logic on new or previous information when solving a problem or making a decision. And knowing the difference between good or bad, efficient or inefficient, appropriate or inappropriate.
Example (if they could): a horse no longer has access to the long stick they used as a tool to reach their hay, they understand they need something else that is long to reach their hay and they try to use a broom instead.
Insight – mentally thinking of a solution to a problem without trial and error.
Example (if they could): an ‘ah-hah!’ moment. A horse who has never before opened their stable door will need to just look at a bolt on a door and figure out in their head how to open it based on other different experiences and reasoning.
Planning – thinking about the behaviour that is needed to achieve a desired goal in the future
Example (if they could): the horse ensures the stick is left nearby after they have used it so they can reach the hay again in the future.
Why should we understand the horse’s learning abilities?
Despite its limitations, this study confirming tool use in horses is important because it encourages us to ask the question “do horses have a higher learning ability than we think?”. Without enough significant evidence, this question should always remain a question, rather than a belief.
Over the years, researchers have expanded our knowledge on how a horse learns. Their studies have helped us improve the way we train and manage our horses.
The current understanding is that horses learn through associative learning (trial and error, and pairing) and non-associative learning (habituation and sensitisation) in our interactions with them.
A thorough understanding of these learning processes can greatly enhance our training programmes. It helps our horses achieve pretty amazing things without the need of complex learning abilities.
Believing that horses can learn in ways they cannot (such as through reasoning and planning), can place unrealistic and unfair expectations on them during our interactions… a bit like would happen if we expect a baby to solve a mathematics equation!
A horse, and many of the species that do not use tools, may not have developed this type of learning skill through evolution simply because they did not really need it to survive and thrive in their natural environment.
There were just 13 confirmed tool use cases out of the 1014 that were reported by horse owners, so we will need much more research and evidence before we can say that horses – as a species – have complex mental abilities.
Have you seen your horse perform tool use?
This study, by Krueger, K.; Trager, L.; Farmer, K.; Byrne, R. is titled: Tool Use in Horses. It was published in Animals in 2022. It is a very interesting read and is also open access, read it yourself here: https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12151876