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Can Horses Recognize Themselves In The Mirror?

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Can horses recognize themselves in the mirror?

We know horses aren’t stupid, but that doesn’t mean they think like humans do. Self-consciousness is a rare skill. In nature, only a few animals can do this. These include bottlenose dolphins, Eurasian magpies, some great apes and Asian elephants. A study, however, shows some horses can recognize themselves.

Can Horses Recognize Themselves In The Mirror?

Self-consciousness is the ability to recognize one’s self. This can be a hard ability to test for, which is why Gustav Gallup came up with the mirror test in the 70s. An animal, faced with a mirror, may realize the animal reflected is itself, not another of its own species. If the animal recognizes itself, they will notice if something changed in their body and inspect the change. This may lead the animal to examine itself in the mirror, especially parts it can’t normally see. If the animal doesn’t recognize itself, it will react to the reflection as if it’s another animal.

So, can horses recognize themselves in the mirror test? Until recently, the answer was no. But a new test seems to point in a different direction.

Scientist P. Paragli, from the University of Pisa, Italy, tested four horses with a mirror. The test included: a horse with a functional mirror, with a turned-away mirror (non-functional), without the mirror, and with a functional mirror plus another horse that couldn’t see the mirror.

Paragli applied the same situations with a horse whose cheek was marked with odorless, transparent mark and marked with a visible, odorless mark. The marks serve a purpose: if the horse recognizes itself, it will react to the mark and try to explore it. The marks were placed on the horse’s cheek, where it cannot see it without a mirror.

The results

The study tested four horses. The horses explored the functional mirror more often than the non-functional mirror. They pulled faces, even sticking out their tongues, which shows they acknowledged some difference between what they saw and what they could sense. In the end, the horses explored and scratched at the marks, showing some sign they did recognize it as being on their bodies. They reacted more often to the visible mark than to the invisible mark.

While it seems clear the horses noticed something amiss, Paragli cannot conclude they can, in fact, identify themselves in the mirror. Further tests are necessary, as the sample size (only four horses) was too small for any reasonable conclusion. You can read more about the mirror test and horses here. It’s worth noting the horse seems to realize it’s not another horse staring at them: they tend to check behind or around the mirror.

Watch this horse (not part of the experiment) discover his reflection:

You can read the full study and the results here.

Lukas, the smartest horse

While the ability to recognize oneself in the mirror may not be natural, it can be taught. The horse Lukas, Guinness World Record holder for the smartest horse in the world, has passed the mirror test after being suitably taught by his trainer. Training like this, however, doesn’t prove much, as the animal may simply be mimicking what is expected and not, truly, acknowledging itself.

In any case, Lukas does seem to show some awareness. You can read about Lukas’s experience with a mirror here.

How does your horse react to a mirror? Do you believe horses recognize themselves? Leave a comment below and let us know!

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