I really thought this was a no-brainer. Goes to show how far "conventional wisdom" will take you in this horse life. I would have sworn--still do swear--that watching is how horses learn pretty much everything. Now along comes all this research stuff to prove me wrong. Huh.
It's possible that horses don't learn everything by watching. I'm willing to grant that much. The focus of such studies tends to be on idiosyncracies like cribbing, weaving, or rooting for the Red Sox. I'm guessing the box-opening in this study might just not appeal to some horses. I'm also guessing (from my vast experience) that some horses just don't care to learn anything that isn't within certain limits of their intellects or their natural tendencies.
Take the following examples under consideration.
Zip (yeah, it always starts with Zip, doesn't it) taught himself to sweep the mat in front of his stall with a broom. My lovely barn slave, Breanna, discovered this talent, and it has become his signature move. He enjoys it so much (and gets rewarded so profusely) that I had to buy him his own whisk broom to keep him from destroying my personal favorite floor broom. He's been doing this for several years at every opportunity.
Enter the new horses. Six or so years ago, I brought home the Appy, Dakota, and the mini, Duke. Neither of them knew any tricks on arrival. Duke, like any good dog, is a very quick study and took to clicker training as if he'd been born to it. Dakota just doesn't seem to see the point of doing anything...ever...for any reason. Totally opposite personalities.
|An extremely good boy. Note the open stall door.|
Note the missing stall guard. Note Dakota standing quietly
in his stall. Not unusual you say? He stood this way for TWO HOURS
while I was in the house eating breakfast and doing chores!
Time passed, and one boring winter day when the horses had been stalled longer than their usual two hours, I let Zip do his sweeping trick and treated him. Behind me, I heard an odd sound and turning to check the source (hoping it wasn't rodent-generated) I saw that Dakota had found a small branch in his hay corner and was sweeping the mat in front of his stall with it! Talk about a shocker. Many cookies ensued, and he did make one more move toward picking up the branch before he called it quits and moseyed out for the day.
I was gleeful, thinking maybe I had proof that horses really do imitate each other with purpose and forethought, but what came next really floored me. I was busily with the post-mucking aisle sweeping, all the horses but Duke out in their respective turnouts (Duke likes to help in the morning...mostly himself to any fallen grain in the big horses' stalls) when I heard another sound and turned around to find that Duke had retrieved Zip's dropped broom and was sweeping behind me as I moved down the aisle! I applauded, shrieked, cookied, ans apparently scared the sweep right out of him as he never did it again. In fact, no cajoling on my part ever got him to even take the broom in his mouth again.
But I know what I saw. I also know I saw Zip watch me fasten the gate then immediately unfasten it with his lips. He may not ever imitate Dakota's weird habit of lipping his bucked after each mouthful of grain, but he definitely mimicked me. If I put my head down, he puts his down. If I back up next to Duke, Duke backs up at the same pace. I didn't teach them these things purposely. I contend that they just watched and learned.
The photo above is, I think, proof of something strange that I'm trying to classify. Dakota could have left at any point. Any of the other horses would have at least gone into the aisle and helped themselves to the hay stalls as Pokey did and Pinky did given the same opportunity. They're his barn mates, and he could have learned that from them. But unlike Pokey and Pinky, Dakota has Good Boy written all over his spirit. He only learns what he thinks is important, like how to stop at the gate and turn and block it (a Zip trick) hoping I'll ask him to do a trick for a cookie before pushing him out into the pasture. And like sweeping the floor...which he has never, never done again because...well, just because.
So in the end, I think there's far more going on than just horses being capabable or incapabable of learning by example. It think there are parts of a horse that simply defy examination of any meaningful sort. I think they think. A lot. About things we haven't a clue about. And the surprises that come with that are more fun than a box of puppies.
And I'm totally okay with that.