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Do horses understand mirrors?

Whether horses can recognize themselves in a mirror is a debated topic in animal cognition research. Horses, like many animals, respond to their reflection as if it is another individual. However, some research suggests horses may have a more complex understanding of mirrors than originally thought.

Horse Reactions to Mirrors

When horses first encounter a mirror, their instinctive reaction is to treat their reflection like another horse. They may act territorially by turning their ears back, swishing their tails, or even biting or kicking towards the mirror. This behavior arises from horses relying heavily on vision to monitor their environment for threats. Seeing an unknown horse suddenly appear is alarming and elicits an aggressive response.

With repeated exposure, horses typically stop reacting defensively to their reflection. However, they still show interest in the mirror by gazing at it, sniffing it, or touching it gently with their nose. They do not appear to recognize the reflection as themselves. In cognitive science, the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is considered evidence of self-awareness. Animals that pass this test are thought to have a sense of self.

Self-Recognition Studies in Horses

Several studies have tested horses’ self-recognition abilities by secretly placing a colored mark on the horse’s body and observing whether they notice the mark in the mirror. Horses failed to touch or investigate the mark, suggesting they did not recognize their reflection. However, horses did exhibit unusual social responses that indicate a more complex reaction:

Study Finding
Povinelli (1989) Horses looked behind the mirror to search for the “other horse”
Malavasi & Huber (2016) Horses showed decreased heart rate when viewing mirror, suggesting perception of non-threat
Baragli et al. (2017) Horses exhibited friendly facial expressions towards mirror

These studies suggest horses can perceive that the mirror does not present an actual unknown horse. The reflection does not fully match their expectations for real social encounters.

Cognitive Explanations

Researchers proposed two theories for why horses fail the mark test but show altered social responses to mirrors:

1. Cognitive bias for social perception

Horses have strong social recognition abilities geared towards identifying other horses. Their brains may be primed to perceive faces and bodies as social stimuli. The reflection contains enough social cues to tap into this system and elicit social reactions. But it lacks other sensory information needed for full self-recognition.

2. Inability to view own body

Horses have laterally placed eyes that give them a 350° field of vision. However, this makes it difficult for them to see their own head and body without a mirror. So the reflection presents a viewpoint they are unaccustomed to. This explanation argues horses do have a sense of self, but the mirror test is biased against their visual abilities.

Could Training Improve Performance?

Another consideration is that horses are naïve subjects in these studies experiencing mirrors for the first time. Humans do not automatically recognize themselves in childhood either. We gradually learn the connection through exposure and interaction with mirrors over months and years. Might horses also pass the test with proper training and experience?

One study provided horses with weekly training sessions interacting with a mirror over a ten-week period. The horses learned to use the mirror to locate hidden food and observe spaces behind barriers. But they still did not touch markings on their body seen only in the mirror. So extended exposure did not elicit self-directed behaviors in this study.

What Are Horses Capable Of Understanding?

Although horses may not recognize themselves visually, some research hints they have cross-modal self-recognition based on other senses:

  • Horses are less likely to steal food from other horses they know and have close relationships with.
  • Horses can learn to recognize their own whinnies played back to them in recordings.
  • Horses show awareness of their individual preferences, such as favored foods or humans.

So horses likely have abstract self-concepts and body awareness. Their mental representation of “self” manifests through social behaviors and memories. But this does not directly translate into visual self-recognition in mirrors. Overall, the question remains open whether horses can achieve true mirror self-recognition with the right type of experience.


Mirror studies show horses respond socially to their reflection and can perceive that it does not represent an actual stranger. However, they fail to recognize the reflection as their own body. This may be due to over-reliance on visual social cues, difficulty seeing their own body without a mirror, or lack of experience with mirrors during development. With different testing methods or training, horses could potentially demonstrate more advanced self-awareness. But the current evidence suggests their self-recognition is limited compared to species like chimpanzees and elephants who pass the mirror test. Understanding how horses conceptualize themselves could provide broader insight into their intelligence and cognition.