Proven Fact: Horses Pick up Tricks and Moves by Watching!

I was reading an article the other day about some scientists that were figuring out whether horses learned through watching or not and I found it fascinating that they came up with the idea that horses do not learn by watching other horses. It’s just so silly that they don’t know that they do!

When I went to Verde Valley School, aged 14 years, I took my three year old Arab horse with me so I would have a horse to ride. I wanted to show her but there weren’t any horse shows in that part of Arizona. However, there was a rodeo coming to town and I realized that I could compete at the rodeo on her doing barrel racing. My mare had never actually done anything like that and, in fact, she’d only been under saddle a short while. As I said, she was three years old, so I had maybe only ridden her about 30 times but I wanted to compete with her all the same.

What I did therefore was to ride her over to the arena at our school and just sit on her and let her watch the other horses running the barrels because she’d never seen anything like that before. I did this for about a week and then the next week we went down there and walked the pattern until she could walk the pattern of the barrels without guidance. Then the following week we trotted, then we cantered and so on. This was probably only about six weeks before the rodeo but we ended up winning the event.

I think that the main reason for this was my approach and also the week that she had watched. From there, I took that information and I’ve used it in my training programs ever since. If I need to teach a horse to do anything, especially something like a Spanish walk, I get another horse to do a Spanish walk in front of him. Then I give a treat to both of them and if I wait long enough, the horse that was watching will start doing the Spanish walk on his own. That’s the way I have taught every single one of my horses to do the Spanish walk, as well as rearing, lying down and any number of other tricks and moves.

So the moral of the story, for me at least, is to learn from my own experience and judgment.


Carolyn Resnick
Horsemanship from the Ground Up





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Comment by Ellen Ofstad on April 9, 2010 at 9:17am
Hello Carolyn!
Thank you for posting this. I am very interested in horses abilities to learn and have found that a lot of common beliefs and studies simply aren't true, I think we underestimate the horses a lot. I have a question about your posting, but first I wanted to tell you about a case in point :)

Some time ago I read a study that claimed a horse couldn't learn a new behavior just by observing a humans movements. They could learn body-language cues and one could build on those, but they couldn't generalize a "do what I do command" that was used for one movement, and from that figure out a "generalized command" meaning that if you did something different they were supposed to "do what I do" even if it was something new to them.

In dolphin training this is something that is used a lot, and once they have learned a generalized command like "copy me" it is very easy to teach them something new, but horses didn't have this capability, they were simply not smart enough. According to the study…

I wanted to see for myself.
My horse had been taught a lot of cues based on cues from my body-language, but all the movements had been taught gradually from shaping (breaking down the maneuver into small bits and gradually building up the finished movement.) Since he already knew a lot of "do what I do-commands" I did something I had never done before to see if he had made these other commands into the generalized "copy me" command.

If the studies were right he wouldn't be able to do it.
They were wrong :)
In the first attempt he watched me and tried to figure out what I asked for. I was jumping up and down with my knees bent high (hard work!) and he started out by just throwing his head up and down. On the second attempt he figured out that I wanted his legs to move up and down and he made a perfect copy.

As luck would have it we filmed the sequence if you want to see it:
This is just as fast as any dolphin can figure out a new maneuver using this principle. In my opinion the biggest difference between the two spices lies in the training method and not their learning abilities.

A part of the problem here is of course that we don't have the same body as horses, so there are a lot of movements I simply can't show him. What I haven't done is to use this principal to have one horse learn a new behavior by copying another horses movements like you described. This would be a great way to work around the issue of me only having two feet :)
I have used horses to show each other different things like trailer loading, and seeing that things aren't dangerous, and that is very effective. Now I have to try out teaching a maneuver by watching another horse.

So here's my question. When you show a maneuver with one horse and the other one is watching, is the horses watching loose? or do you have someone else with you so that you each work with a horse? In other words, how to you usually set this up?

Also, do you think the horses relationship is a factor? Do you think a horse will copy a horse that they know more easily than if they don't know each other?

With regards
Ellen Ofstad
Comment by Jackie Cochran on March 31, 2010 at 6:29pm
I doubt that earlier observers rewarded BOTH horses for an act of imitation. All I've seen, heard, and read is that horses did not learn by imitation, but we did not reward. Maybe you are teaching/incentivising the horse to imitate the other horse, teaching him that you WANT him to imitate the other horse. If I ever own another horse again I'll have to remember this.
Comment by Barnmice Admin on March 31, 2010 at 10:22am
This is a fascinating post! I had heard that a great way to each a horse piaffe was to have another horse piaffe beside him. Thanks for the further clarification. :)

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