As an industry, we seem to constantly be underestimating just how smart horses are. A recent study found that horses can recognise themselves in mirrors. This demonstrates a good level of self awareness what has only been demonstrated in a handful of different animals.
The Mirror Test
The mirror test was developed by Gordon Gallop Jr in 1970 as a way measure self awareness. The test works by determining whether the animal (or human) recognises themself in the mirror, or if they just see an image. You ususally show the subject their reflection in the mirror. Then you add a mark to the subject, a dot of paint etc, somewhere they can see in their reflection. To pass the test, they will adjust their behaviour to get a better look at the mark and maybe even try to remove the mark, suggesting that they can tell it’s on them.
What animals can recognise themselves in mirrors?
Previous studies have found that some great apes (chimps & orangutans), dolphins, orcas, elephants and humans have all passed the mirror test, suggesting that they can recognise themselves. There is also suggestions that some birds, such as magpies, and even ants could also have this level of self recognition.
Interestingly children under the age of 2 often fail this test along with mans best friend, dogs. Those who don’t recognise themselves show a range of behaviours from attacking their reflection, to greeting it, to ignoring it. We’ve all seen those videos online of dogs and cats barking at their own reflections!
Horses can recognise themselves in mirrors
A research team in Italy has recently found that horses can recognise themselves in mirrors, something we didn’t expect horses to be able to do. 14 riding school horses were shown a mirror and all of the horses showed signs of recognising that there was a horse in the mirror. Some stared at their reflection. Others tried to look behind the mirror for the other horse. Some played a game of peek-a-boo with their reflection.
The horses were given an invisible mark on their cheek so they would feel something being applied to their face but wouldn’t see anything in the mirror. When they looked back in the mirror, their behaviour didn’t change. When a visible X mark was put on their cheeks, the horses recognised that it was them in the mirror and that the mark was new. Many of the horses in the study tried to rub the mark off, suggesting that they new it shouldn’t be on there.
While this is just one study, it goes to show that horses are capable of surprising us and I hope to see more research into this area.
Why do stable mirrors work?
For years, using mirrors in the stable or if traveling alone have been recommended for horses who suffer with seperation anxiety. The idea being that they don’t recognise themselves and view the horse in the reflection as company. But this new research suggests that horses can recognise themselves in a mirror, so they wouldn’t be tricked into believing they had company.
One arguement could be that not all animals within a species will have the same levels of awareness. Not all chimps can recognise themselves in mirrors. So it makes sense that maybe not all horses do. Maybe mirrors work best for the horses who don’t recognise themselves.
Last Updated on 21/01/2022