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Equine Science Sundays: Social Eavesdropping in Horses

Due to audience interest, we're excited to introduce Equine Science Sundays, where we explore topics in equine science outside of just nutrition! To request a topic, shoot us a message on any of our socials, or submit requests through the linked form on our website or connect page!





Social eavesdropping is an information gathering strategy used by social animals by observing interactions between two individuals. They then use what they saw to form an emotional valence attribution to the individual (deciding if they are ‘good’, ‘bad; or ‘neutral’), allowing them to adjust their own behaviour towards the individual.  Despite personal accounts existing in the industry, the extent of equine use of social eavesdropping and referencing had not received much scientific attention until a 2020 study (Trosch et al) investigated whether horses could learn attributes about two different handlers from watching them interact with other horses.


Trosch et al (2020) showed horses two 30 second silent videos via projection on their stall wall. These videos depicted interactions between handlers and an unfamiliar horse; a negative interaction (aerosol application, horse balked away and showing the whites of their eyes) and a positive interaction (handler grooming horse and horse engaging in allogrooming behaviour). 


After watching the videos, the handlers from the videos entered the area where the test horse was. The test horses were able to perceive and react to the emotional content of the videos, expressing similar emotions to the horse in the video when with the respective handlers from the videos. :

  • Increased heart rate when watching negative video.

  • Attempts to groom handler holding them during positive.

  • Emotional status were assessed by facial expression, HR and behaviour.


An interesting observation was that the test horses touched the negative handler almost 2x more than the positive. Other studies observed contact-seeking behaviour after conflict between horses (Cozzi et al, 2010), suggesting this is an appeasement behaviour.  This appeasement behaviour is really interesting considering how generally, a lot of horse people don’t like - may punish - their horse nudging them with their muzzle, and it would be incredibly interesting to understand the effects of punishing an animal who was trying to de-escalate the situation!


Anyway, this study was really interesting because it was one of the first in the literature to report positive emotion transmission in horses, which could present a new strategy to helping fearful horses attribute positive valence to handlers or situations!


 

Reference


Trosch, M., Pellon, S., Cuzol, F., Parias, C., Nowak, R., Calandreau, L., Lansade, L. 2020. Horses feel emotions when they watch positive and negative horse-human interactions in a video and transpose what they saw to real life. Animal Cognition (23): 643-653. 

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