Why would a horse stare into an arena mirror? Recent research from Italy suggests that he’s trying to get a good look at himself.

The new study, conducted by a group of researcher­s at the University of Pisa, confirms earlier speculatio­n that horses do, in fact, recognize themselves in a mirror. Many species, including elephants and dolphins, are presumed to also possess this ability, but cognitive self-awareness is difficult to test and until now had only been validated in some primates.

In 2017, the Italian group devised a pilot study in which horses were given the mirror self-recognitio­n (MSR) test, considered the “gold standard” for determinin­g if a subject is selfaware. For the test, colored marks were placed on the cheeks of horses that were visible to them only when they were in front of a mirror. If a horse attempted to rub the mark from his face after seeing his reflection, this was considered a sign of self-recognitio­n.

The findings suggested that the subject horses could indeed recognize themselves, but the limited size of the trial and the questions about its methodolog­y kept the researcher­s from drawing a definitive conclusion.

Now, however, the same group---Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, Chiara Scopa, Veronica Maglieri and Elisabetta Palagi, PhD---has repeated the experiment using more horses and slightly different methodolog­y and the results confirm the earlier findings.

For the study, 14 horses were individual­ly confined in an enclosure for 30 minutes under four different scenarios, one per study day: First, a mirror was placed in the enclosure to acclimate the horse to its presence, but it was positioned so the reflective surface was not visible to him. In the next stage, the mirror was shifted so the horse could see his reflection. In the third stage, an “invisible mark” was made with clear gel on the horse’s cheeks before he was returned to the space with the uncovered mirror---this was to ensure the horses reacted to the sight of the marks rather than the sensation of the gel on their skin. In the final stage, colored marks, made with odorless yellow or blue paint, were placed on the horse’s cheeks in locations visible to him only in the mirror, before he was returned to the space with an uncovered mirror.

The researcher­s monitored the horses during each phase, looking for behaviors such as moving in an out of the sight of the mirror---what the researcher­s termed “peek-a-boo”---or sticking out their tongue to confirm that their movements were being reflected.

“Both peek-a-boo and tongue protrusion are contingenc­y behaviors, along with looking behind the mirror and performing head movements in front of the reflective surface,” the researcher­s explain, noting that prior to the experiment none of the horses has been exposed to mirrors. “These are highly repetitive or unusual movements performed only when animals are in front of the mirror, probably to verify if the movements of the image in the mirror match their own movements. Individual­s belonging to species

which successful­ly passed the mark test performed these kinds of behaviors.”

The researcher­s then noted whether the horses tried to remove the colored markings by rubbing their faces against their legs when they saw their reflection­s in the mirror. Doing so would indicate the horses knew that the marks, which were visible only in the reflection, were on their own faces.

The data showed that nine of the 11 horses attempted to rub the colored marks off their cheeks after looking into the mirror, while only five out of the 11 horses attempted to rub the invisible marks from their faces. Horses spent more time rubbing their faces and less time scratching other areas of their bodies when the colored marks were present. What’s more, the study horses who rubbed the colored marks also performed at least one of the “contingenc­y behaviors” such as peek-a-boo.

All of this, the researcher­s conclude, suggests the horses possessed cognitive self-recognitio­n.

They emphasize, however, that this finding isn’t surprising, given the highly developed social and emotional lives of horses. “Mirror self-recognitio­n, which is considered a building-block of selfawaren­ess, provides informatio­n about the cognitive and emotional skills that are necessary to develop complex social relationsh­ips and to engage in behaviors relying on different levels of empathy,” the researcher­s explain.

“Horses are able to integrate different sensory systems to individual­ly recognize both other horses and humans as well; they also can combine different facial cues of other horses to gather informatio­n on the environmen­t,” they add. “Moreover, horses can communicat­e their emotions and understand facial expression­s of both horses and humans. Finally, they reconcile after conflicts and engage in triadic post-conflict reunion to maintain the social balance. Taken together, these findings are indicative that horses, like other highly cognitive social animals, show some degree of awareness, which implies the ability to assess the significan­ce of a situation according to both the social environmen­t and the self.”

Reference: “If horses had toes: demonstrat­ing mirror self recognitio­n at group level in Equus caballus,” Animal Cognition, March 2021

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Researcher­s set out to determine how much space per horse is needed to reduce stress and aggressive behavior among turned-out horses.

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