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Can horses copy other horses' behavior?

Behaviour trainer Line Hummel's horse, Golden, stands nicely waiting for food at feeding time. He is rewarded by getting first. Photo: Kamila Tworkowska.

Have you ever wondered if horses copy each other's behavior and if it might help us teach the horse a desired behavior? Read on as behavioral trainer Line Hummel shares personal experiences about copying behavior.

I've got a horse in the stable that knocks on the stable door during feeding. The mare's name is Solvanggården's Cassandre, commonly known as Cassie and she finds the spot that makes the most noise when she kicks it. I knew there was a deeper problem with the horse, but thinking about the new stable doors, hurt deep down in my wallet. Before I became a trainer for Cassie's owner, she had been given all sorts of nicknames because of her behaviour. During our time together, the mare was in two different stables, and despite progress during the riding, the stable behaviour was rampant. For me, it's important to collaborate not only on the riding, but the horse's behaviour as a whole, because it's often connected.

About the author Line Hummel:

Line Hummel is the founder and owner of the company Hestekræfter

She visits riders and their horses to help solve behavioural problems, creates training programmes and gives lessons. Line's authentic and professional approach to both horse and rider is unique and is based on the unique APPEALmethod.  

If you would like more information about teaching and training, you can contact Line by email, through Messenger or visit her website.

"The 21 hours when the owner is not in the stable"

Now I'm looking after Cassie 24 hours a day because her owner is currently travelling around the world. Now the mare stands perfectly still during feeding, even if I feed her at the end, which used to be a big problem. Let me tell you what I did, because it's much more about the 21 hours when the horse owner is not in the stable, and very much about those who bring the feed trolley every single day. It also matters what the other horses in the stable are like. My horse Golden helped me as well as a story from horse trainer Mark Rashid's horse life.


US study shows that horses copy behavior

Mark Rashid is an American horse trainer, clinician and author whose philosophy is to understand the horse's point of view and solve problems with communication and understanding. At one time, Mark worked at a stable that made a living taking tourists on rides. After the tour, the horses were tied up at the gates to be unsaddled and let loose to find their own way back to the stable. Here, it happened more and more often that the horses ran to their feed. It became a stressful situation for both horses and humans. Mark wanted to teach them to walk calmly into the corridor and into their stalls.

The traditional way to teach a horse to walk through the door is to hold it in stride and yell at it when it pulls, perhaps tugging on the halter. But this behavior is stressful for both parties and often we humans end up escalating conflict. Mark started an experiment with the staff to see if the horses could learn to walk quietly through the stable door by observing and calculating how they are allowed to pass. Mark wanted to test how abstract the horses can think and learn from each other's behaviour.

The grooms came up with a plan. Every time a horse was untied from the gate, a staff member was ready to stop it and pull it back to the gate if it ran. The horses that walked up to the door were allowed to pass and get into their stall with feed. So only the desired behaviour is rewarded. The unwanted behavior was not punished, but the horses were quietly led back to the start like a computer game where you have to start over until you can complete the task.

The experiment succeeded. After repeatedly leading the horses back, some more times than others, the running horses started to change their behavior. It looked like they understood that they had to walk in the same way as the other horses that entered their stalls. This is an example of abstract thinking, and it's something that shows that horses learn from everything we do with them, both positive and negative.

Which horse gets fed first?

It was this experiment that inspired me. I had previously taught my own horse Karolien Fane Drifté (Karo) not to kick/scratch at feeding time. The method I used here was to use the reward system and click my tongue when she stood still and reward her with the feed.

This time, I would praise the horses that stood nicely and waited for their feed and give it to them. The horses that kicked received no attention. Here I wanted to observe if the horses that kicked the door would copy the behaviour of the horses that received their food.

Line is reading Karo's muzzle and face because she is begging, but is actually calm. It requires precision and timing. If the feed is given during begging behavior, it can escalate and eventually turn into knocking and restless behavior during feeding. Photo: Kamila Tworkowska

After the new horse had arrived, it was clear that the other horses were starting to copy the behavior of kicking the stall door. The feeding situation was escalating in intensity and I had to do something. Most importantly, I needed to calm myself down and not get annoyed that the new horse was kicking my brand new and rather expensive black lacquer and bamboo stable doors…

My horse Golden is the hardest horse to handle outside, but the nicest horse in the stable. He always stands perfectly still, blinks a little, has his ears out, and watches me walk with the feed, but he stands still and waits. For the same reason he gets fed at the end, because he's so pleasant. A completely different story is that a clairvoyant has been out and said that he doesn't think he gets his food on time.

Feed as a reward

So I changed the order in which I fed the horse. I wanted to reward the horses with the feed for standing nicely. So the order is not random, but completely dependent on the horses' behavior. At each feeding, I calmly walked up to Golden and fed him first because he always stands nicely. I mentioned that he was good at standing calmly. The new mare Cassie got more frustrated because I ignored her, so she banged even harder on my beautiful stall door. I took a deep breath, stayed calm, and chose the next horse that stood still. I sent a loving thought to all the stable owners who get frustrated with "ill-behaved" horses, and I understood their concern, but I didn't want to yell at them in my stable. I've tried that in the past and it doesn't work. It also put me in a bad mood.

I walked near Cassie while she was doing her "mischief" until she stopped for a moment. I clicked and immediately walked over with the food as a reward. And I continued like this during every single feeding even if I was in a hurry because I hoped that these minutes would give me a much better result.

Golden is rewarded for standing neatly when it's feeding time. Photo Kamila Tworkowska

Within a week, the sweet 6-year-old mare was standing still with her ears pointed towards me like a soldier saluting. She got the message - without me having to yell at her. I have to admit that I didn't expect to get such a quick reaction. I had prepared myself for this to take months because I knew the owner had been working with the horse for years to get her to stop the kicking behavior.

Now I can't wait for the owner to return from her trip and see that her horse has become calmer and more confident - also in areas other than the riding arena.


Horses are constantly learning

This experience tells me that it's important to remember which stable staff will be handling your horse. The stable staff help to give your horse the reputation that is passed on again and again when new horses and people come to the stable. When I get visitors to my stable, it's the good things about the horses that are passed on.

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If something is difficult for a horse, we should certainly discuss it, but we must avoid putting the horse in a negative situation without offering a way to help them out.

A good atmosphere in the stable is crucial for your horse. If you have a problem in your stable, reach out for help. I'm happy to come over or give presentations, and I can facilitate a completely different culture in the stable with you. It should be nice to be a horse, and it should be nice to be human when we're in the stable.


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