Can Horses Recognize Themselves In Mirrors?

Many horses like to look at their reflection in shiny surfaces, whether that’s a mirror or the window of a trailer or barn. But do they know what they’re looking at? The answer is complicated. 

An animal’s ability to recognize itself in a mirror is a building block of self-awareness; it highlights the cognitive and emotional skills necessary to develop social relationships and engage empathetic behaviors, say Drs. Paolo Baragli, Elisa Demuru, Chiara Scopa and Elisabetta Palagi. 

The scientists acclimated four horses to an enclosure that had a mirror—first with the mirror covered, then with it uncovered. They then conducted a test where, in theory, a self-aware animal would perform a sequence of behaviors that leads them to understand that what the mirror is showing them is not another animal, but a reflection.

If the horse were to respond the way other self-aware animals did, they first would look in the mirror inquisitively, wondering who is in the mirror. They then would inspect the actual mirror, look behind the mirror and then test the mirror by making strange faces to see what the reflection does. 

The scientists videotaped each of the horse’s responses to the mirror the first time it was uncovered. After the initial exposure, the team placed an “X” on each horse’s cheek, which the horse would only see when looking in the mirror. The researchers then observed the horses to see if they tried to remove the mark from their cheek, which would indicate that the horse recognized the reflection as his own. 

The results from their study did not confirm that a horse could recognize his own reflection. The research team says this may be because the methodology was designed for primates; they also noted that horses simply may not be motivated to remove a mark from their face. 

The team is hopeful that more research, possibly with a different testing format, will allow them to determine if a horse recognizes his own reflection. 

Read more at EQUUS Magazine

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