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Early Training of Foals

Foals are cute, high energy, and very trainable. The same principles apply to training older, naive horses as to training foals, but there are some special considerations to keep in mind because of the stage of development foals are in.

Using the International Society for Equitation Science’s (ISES) 10 Principles of Equitation Science in the training of foals has proven effective at producing horses that are safe and easy to handle. Because early training experiences have been demonstrated to affect a horse’s behaviour without any further handling for up to two years, the foal’s first experiences of training are critical.

This article is a brief breakdown of what foals should learn and how they can be taught.

Principle 1: Account for the Horse’s Ethology and Cognition

The naive, three-year-old horse can focus enough to learn for approximately 20-30 minutes at first, and this time is slowly extended through training. The foal, therefore, has a shorter attention span lasting only 10-15 minutes. Training can begin at the foal’s third week of life, and should not be conducted daily. Two to three days in a row with at least one rest day in between has been shown to be effective.

Training sessions should take place in a small enclosed area with the mare present. The mare can have a positive effect on how the foal perceives human contact, provided she has a positive relationship with people herself. Two handlers are required for foal training sessions: the mare’s handler keeps her close to the foal during the training session and can feed, groom, or stroke her while the foal’s handler conducts the training.

Being in a small enclosure with the mare makes it easier for the foal’s handler to ensure that the foal does not learn to run away from people or to move away from their touch or their presence. Each session should focus on one very basic and simple task, such as moving towards a light sideways and forward pull on the lead rope. When the task has been repeated successfully or nearly successfully three times in a row, the learning session is finished for that day.

Principle 2: Use Learning Theory Appropriately

The foal can quickly learn to go, stop, back up, and turn from light pressures on the halter and lead rope.

The foal can be taught to stand still for very short periods of time, and to be handled all over, including picking up feet.

The foal should learn that interactions with people are positive and enjoyable, so the foal’s handler must be consistent and a competent trainer. Through this consistent training, the foal will learn that people must be treated differently than the other foals it is growing up with.

Habituation to lightweight objects such as blankets can also be undertaken with a foal, once basic responses to halter pressures have been trained.

All of these things can be trained using the framework of stimulus (pressure or cue), response (behaviour), and reinforcement (reward). Rewards for proper behaviour can be the release of pressure and withers scratching.

Principle 3: Train Cues that are Easy to Tell Apart

Each of the above responses that the foal will learn needs a distinct cue so the foal does not become confused or stressed by cues for different responses that feel too similar.

Principle 4: Correct Use of Shaping

Shaping transforms a newly learned behaviour from an initial first attempt that may not be entirely correct to the final correctly trained behaviour. To do this, the handler must slowly and progressively increase expectations of the desired behaviour and reward for ever-improving responses.

Principle 5: Ask for Responses One at a Time

Horses can only attend to one stimulus at a time and can, therefore, become overwhelmed by simultaneous cues. Cueing for two responses will either confuse the horse or cause stress and potentially conflict behaviours such as rearing, biting, kicking, bolting, or bucking as the foal tries to escape the stressful situation. In training sessions, ensure that one response is completely finished before asking for the next one.

Principle 6: Train One Response per Signal

In early training it is helpful to reduce to a minimum the number of signals that the foal is taught, and to ensure that each signal only means one thing. Other signals can be added later on as needed, but the basic requirements of handling a foal are such that the cues and responses can remain quite simple until it is time for further training.

Principle 7: Form Habits

Keeping training consistent as to handler, cues, and environment allows the foal to more quickly absorb the training. Once each response is consolidated in this consistent context, a new environmental feature or different handler can be substituted one at a time to expand the breadth of training.

Principle 8: Train Self-Carriage

The foal should learn right away to continue offering the response last asked for until something else is requested. This is an important skill for all future training, so the horse does not have to be constantly signalled to keep going. Constant signalling will result in habituation to the cue, and the horse will eventually stop responding to that cue entirely.

At this point in training, the mare can be used to help the foal learn to continue walking by following his mother after receiving the go signal, and to stand still following a stop cue because the mare is stationary.

Principle 9: Avoid Flight Responses

Foals should not learn to play with people like they would play with another foal. It is cute while the foal is small, but he will not understand that he has grown and cannot leap up on a person when he is older. Foal play also includes practice of flight responses such as running, bucking, and rearing, and learning to perform these behaviours in the presence of people is not something to encourage.

A small area for initial training helps to prevent the expression of flight responses, and training methods should never seek to intentionally trigger a fear response.

Principle 10: Keep Arousal to a Minimum During Training

In order to learn, the foal should be as relaxed as possible, but not to the point of falling asleep. The handler should pay attention to signs of stress in the foal and be ready to take a break, allow the foal physical contact with its mother, or go back to easier, previously learned responses in order to reduce stress and promote learning.

Conclusion

Mini training sessions following these principles will set the foal up for positive future learning experiences. These early sessions are teaching the foal how to learn from and interact with people, which are crucial skills for every horse to know.

References

ISES. (2017) Principles of Learning Theory in Equitation. Accessed August 5, 2021 from https://equitationscience.com/learning-theory/ (this article based on the 2017 version of the principles, as is the study by King et al.)

King, S., Wills, L., and Randle, H. (2019) Early training of foals using the ISES training principles. J. Vet. Behav. 29, 140-146.

Implications of Cribbing—Not All Bad

Cribbing is a sterotypical behaviour, meaning it is repetitive, persistent, and abnormal. There are also other oral stereotypies, including windsucking and wood chewing.

A long time ago, cribbing used to be called a ‘vice’ and was regarded as a plague in the barn that could be ‘caught’ by other horses. We know now that this is not true.

Then it was hypothesized that poor or unnatural living conditions were the cause of cribbing and other oral stereotypies. This is not far from the mark.

Recent research however is showing that horses displaying oral stereotypical behaviour actually have a different neural phenotype when compared to ‘normal’ horses that affects how dopamine interacts with the basal ganglia of the brain. This situation is brought about by stressors during development.

Therefore, the genetics of the horse and the stressors the horse experiences combine to create the stereotypical behaviour.

The Negative Implications of Cribbing

Horses that crib destroy fencing and anything else they can get their teeth on. Stable managers have tried many creative solutions to prevent their barns from being eaten down. Leaving a designated spot that the horse is ‘allowed’ to crib may be beneficial, as it is the horse’s way of coping with the altered dopamine transmission in the brain.

Teeth suffer more wear and tear in the cribbing horse, but with adequate and potentially more frequent veterinary dental care, this drawback can be managed.

To anyone who doesn’t know the causes in the particular horse, the sight and sound of a cribbing horse can be distressing. Being able to explain the phenomenon with sensitivity to a layperson is a beneficial skill.

Managing Cribbing

Because cribbing arises from stressors, the moment someone notices a horse cribbing that doesn’t usually crib, taking a serious look at its environment and making some changes could eliminate the behaviour and improve the horse’s welfare.

Common stressors in horses include social isolation, insufficient time spent foraging, lack of necessary nutrients, and inconsistent handling.

Ensuring that stressors are reduced as much as possible may reduce the horse’s drive to find other ways to cope.

The Positive Implications of Cribbing

If your horse cribs habitually, there is no need to despair. There are also positive aspects of the neural phenotype responsible for the behaviour!

Horses that crib form stronger habits more quickly. They will move from Response-Outcome learning to Stimulus-Response learning more quickly than the typical ‘normal’ horse. This has implications for the effectiveness of classical conditioning, because regardless of the outcome of the behaviour, the stimulus or cue will continue to produce it. Therefore, even if a new rider continually loses balance and pulls on the horse’s mouth during a jumping effort, effectively punishing it, if the habit of jumping on cue is established the horse will continue to do so, regardless of the unintended punishment.

Cribbing horses are also less sensitive to delays between the response and the outcome. This means a reward for correct behaviour doesn’t have to come right away for them to still make the connection and learn or retain the behaviour. Therefore, even if a new rider delays the release of the reins until after the horse has already stopped, the horse will continue stopping on cue in spite of the delayed reward.

Conclusion

Is it any surprise, given all of these characteristics of the crib-biting horse that every lesson barn has one or two (or more) horses that crib? Being persistent in their habits means these horses aren’t untrained by all of the new riders they teach every day. They are less frustrated by inconsistent timing of rewards for proper behaviour, and aren’t put off by inadvertent punishment that comes from inexperience.

Horses that perform stereotypical behaviours have excellent perseverance. These strong habits can create excellent, reliable horses.

References

Parker, MO (2008) “Behavioural Correlates of the Equine Stereotypy Phenotype”, University of Southampton, School of Psychology, PhD Thesis

Expanding the Window of Tolerance

The aim of good training is to expand the horse’s ‘window of tolerance‘ so the normal, every day stressors don’t bother him so much and there is room for his nervous system to take in and process unexpected or new experiences.

Horses are always moving between arousal states, from more aroused to less, and this often occurs within the window of tolerance so riders don’t often notice the process. But when these stimuli stack too high, they fill up the window and push the horse over the edge.

The rider’s reaction to that will either help to expand the window of tolerance, or push the horse farther above the threshold.

Growing the window can be done using three concepts: pendulation, titration, and self-regulation.

Pendulation

A pendulation is a swing or a cycle. It is returning to the point you started from. This tool to grow the window of tolerance requires patience. It takes time for the horse to return to a parasympathetic nervous state after being pushed up to or above the threshold of his window of tolerance and into a sympathetic state.

Adrenaline is the result of being pushed too far, and the half-life of adrenaline in the body is about 2.5 minutes. Allowing for a full pendulation of the horse’s nervous system then will take at least that long. Some wise old cowboys would call this ‘giving the horse some time to think’.

Trying to control the horse in a situation of high arousal can actually stack more stimuli up and push him over threshold. But this isn’t to say that you should leave your horse alone in a frightening situation. Backing off to where everyone was last comfortable, remaining calm, being reassuring, and waiting for signs of returning to a lower level of arousal is helpful. Being aware of stimulus stacking and trying to avoid stacking too high in the first place is even better. This takes time and practice.

Titration

Titration is a concept in where the balance is continuously adjusted by very tiny increments. In horse training, this is seen in progressing in a logical fashion through training, building in small steps through the training scale.

It can also be used when you start to see signs of stress responses in the horse. Consider what might be causing the response. Then use a tiny amount of that cause, not enough to make a response. Wait for pendulation and add a tiny bit more. In this way, the horse’s window of tolerance grows and expands through thoughtful training.

Self-regulation

This part is for the rider or trainer and not so much for the horse. Horses are actually quite good at self-regulation within their window of tolerance, which is why stress responses often seem out of the blue to riders.

Taking a step back from training when you feel yourself becoming annoyed can help to give clarity to the situation before you and your horse get pushed about threshold. It is better to take the time to grow the window than to risk narrowing it by doing the same old things in the same old way.

References

Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Recovery after Tension and Shock. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrilly. (2020) Growing your Horse’s Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, May-June.

The Window of Tolerance

When your horse jumps out of his skin because of the door in the arena that he sees every day, what is going on? Is he just being silly? Does he know better? If so, you’re justified in the frustration this situation produces. But frustration never trained a horse. Is there a more helpful way to look at this behaviour?

Behaviourally speaking there is a better explanation. Every horse has a ‘window of tolerance’. This window isn’t static, it can be expanded through training and it can also be narrowed by stress. Inside this window the horse can operate well. Each stimulus the horse is exposed to can fill up the window a bit, and as he responds to it or relaxes his level of arousal within the window goes up or down.

When this window is already almost full due to various small (or large) stressors like being alone, pain, a windy day, a sudden noise, or a new training concept, the arena door can become the tiny thing that pushes him out of his window of tolerance. This is called stimulus stacking.

Stimulus stacking means that by the time the arena door became the last straw, the horse had already done a lot of self-regulating of the previous stressors that were narrowing his window. It can seem like out-of-window behaviour comes out of the blue, but there are actually many signs of increasing stress that you may notice beforehand.

Signs that the horse is trying to self-regulate very mild stress include yawning, blinking, and shaking the head or body. More stress produces displacement behaviours like licking objects, pawing, rubbing the head and neck, and sniffing the ground but not eating. Finally stress signals appear, such as characteristics of the equine pain face, startling, and frequent pooping. Pushing through all of these signs takes you to the threshold of the window of tolerance and beyond.

What is beyond the window of tolerance? Fight, flight, or freeze. This is where the horse’s parasympathetic nervous system is engaged. He is now beyond learning from the situation or responding to your cues.

This is why staying within the window of tolerance gets the most training work done. It is also desirable to grow the window of tolerance so the horse becomes more resilient to daily stressors and able to easily handle larger ones. Reading the horse’s body language and responding accordingly will help the horse to regulate his responses to the world around him, resulting in more relaxing and safer interactions between him and you!

In training my clients’ horses, this is what I aim to do—remain within the window of tolerance and grow it to produce a calm and relaxed horse that can cope well with the many stressors that come with a relationship with people.

References

Draaisma, Rachaël (2018) Communication Ladder: Fight or Flight. In: Language Signs and Calming Signals of Horses, Taylor & Francis Group.

Thompson, Kirrily. (2020) The Window of Tolerance. Horses and People, March-April.

Training Foals

Handling Foals

When a foal is born, it is so tempting to get right in there. We want to help the mother, make sure the baby is well, and even start training it right away with the imprinting method popularized by Miller and Close (1991). Miller hypothesized that foals would be accepting of handling and new situations later in life if they were flooded at birth with things they will experience later. Flooding is a desensitizing method that works by overwhelming the animal’s defences until it gives up. Newer research is suggesting that, unless the foal needs immediate intervention to survive, letting mother and baby be alone together is actually the best course of action (Henry et al, 2009). The consequences of just one hour of neonatal handling are astounding.

Short Term Effects of Immediate Handling

In the study, nine foals were left alone with their dams immediately after birth and nine foals received about an hour of imprint training within ten minutes after foaling following the method described by RM Miller. After this one hour treatment, both groups were treated the same, being turned out in social groups and observed periodically.

Foals that received imprint training for an hour in their mother’s presence took longer to stand for the first time and nurse for the first time than foals left undisturbed with their mothers. The imprinted foals also showed trembling, fast breathing, and abnormal sucking. This included directing sucking behaviour at the air or the handler rather than the dam.

Mid Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At six months of age, differences were still observable between experimentally handled foals and those left alone after birth. The imprinted foals were more dependent on their mothers, staying closer on average, exploring less readily, interacting more with their mothers than with others in their social group, and even playing less. They were also less likely to approach an unfamiliar human. These results show that early handling affected the imprinted foals both socially and emotionally.

During weaning at seven months of age, both groups of weanlings showed the same level of whinnying for the first day. After the second day however, the weanlings that were not handled at birth were much calmer and were playing with their peers, while the imprinted weanlings continued in distress even four days after weaning, and also showed aggression towards their peers.

Long Term Effects of Immediate Handling

At one year of age, in social groups with other horses of the same age, differences between imprinted and unhandled horses were still visible. The imprinted horses spent less time in proximity to their peers, and also tended to be more aggressive with their peers.

Conclusions

Even one hour of interference with the earliest interactions between mare and foal has long lasting effects that are not yet fully known. If the effects of the early separation and human handling are still so strongly visible at one year of age, it is possible that the effects will continue through the horse’s life, though further research is needed to confirm this.

Imprinting foals seems to create social misfits in the herd that are insecurely attached to their dam, and have difficulty exchanging the maternal relationship for relationships with peers as normally happens. These differences occurred even though the lives of the imprinted foals after the one hour of handling was exactly the same as that of the control group foals.

Practical Suggestions

For the welfare and proper development of a foal into a healthy and socially well adjusted individual, mares and foals should be allowed to interact alone on their own time scale as much as possible for the critical first hours. This time is essential in forming an appropriate bond with the mother and with peers later in life, and also in fostering a positive relationship with humans.

Another study (Henry et al, 2005) has shown that if the mare has a healthy relationship with humans through calm, daily handling, the foal initiates more interactions with the handler at a young age, is more accepting of touch and novel situations, and at one year old is easy to approach and handle. The daily handling of the dam in this study was very simple, involving hand feeding and soft brushing for fifteen minutes per day on the first five days of the foal’s life. Their findings suggest that short, unobtrusive handling of the dam has a positive effect on the foal’s relationship with people that lasts just as long as the negative effects of imprint training. This could be a more ethical solution than imprinting is to the desire for foals to accept human contact and form a relationship with us.

References

Henry, S; Hemery, D; Richard-Yris, M-A; Hausberger, M. (2005) Human-mare relationships and behaviour of foals toward humans. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 93:341–362.

Henry, S; Richard-Yris, M-A; Tordjman, S; and Hausberger, M. (2009) Neonatal handling affects durably bonding and social development. PLoS ONE, 4:4.

Miller RM; Close, P. (1991) Imprint training of the newborn foal. Western Horseman, 1991

Do Horses Recognize Themselves in a Mirror?

Few species are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror. Many species interpret the image in the mirror as that of a conspecific. Being able to form a concept of ‘self’ requires higher mental ability. Do horses have this ability?

There are three stages an animal has to pass in a mirror self recognition test before the final stage of testing where a mark is applied to the animal in a region only visible with the help of a mirror to see if the animal attempts to remove the mark. Prior to this, the animal must show social responses towards the mirror. Then the animal explores the mirror, including looking behind it. Finally, to get to the stage of testing involving the mark, the animal must repeatedly test the mirror by looking at parts of its body that it cannot typically see without the mirror, or performing repetitive behaviours such as sticking out the tongue or moving in and out of the mirror’s range like playing peek-a-boo.

A few years ago there was an open access pilot study (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0176717) using four horses and a large mirror to see if the horses would pass these four stages and recognize that it was themselves reflected in the mirror. At that point, the results were inconclusive, with horses recognizing that the reflected image did not behave like another horse but showing inconclusive behaviours for the remaining parts of the test.

More recently another open access study was conducted (https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01502-7) with more horses and different results. The mark was only used on the 11 horses (out of 14) that passed the first three stages of the testing as described above. A sham mark was used to ensure the horses were not detecting the mark through tactile means instead of actually seeing the coloured mark, and indeed most of the horses scratched more at the coloured mark than at the invisible one.

These results suggest that horses can develop an idea of self after some exploration of a mirror to satisfy themselves that it is not a conspecific. It is also possible that they recognized the mark on the face as unnatural and attempted to intentionally remove it.

Unfortunately, some reporters are touting this preliminary study with the headline that ‘horses worry about their looks,’ which is a sensational and inaccurate portrayal of the study results. Horses have previously been shown to be incapable of worrying about future events. Anxiety and stress are only triggered by context-specific memory. Reading the studies themselves, which are freely available, is much more accurate than reading reporters’ interpretations!

So don’t take my word for it either. Do some digging yourself, read the articles, and comment your thoughts and findings!

The Horse that Couldn’t Lunge

I put together a before and after video of a young horse who had trouble learning to be lunged. Normally when a horse understands the basic go, stop, and turn commands, lunging is easy right from the first time. Not for Violet… she needed a creative solution that the principles of equitation science suggested. Watch the video to see the transformation!

(Facebook didn’t like the music I used in the video, but I do have the right to it!)

Better Riding=Better Relationship

A recent study examined how riders’ pelvic movement and balance on an exercise ball correlated with their riding ability and harmony with their horse and with their horses’ welfare while riding.

Three gymnastic ball exercises were evaluated, and two of them were found to be positively correlated with riders who moved best with their horses and whose horses expressed the least conflict behaviours. That means the riders who were better at those two exercises were better riders and caused their horses less confusion.

Get your exercise ball and give these a try:

  1. Sitting on an exercise ball with arms crossed in front of you, wrist to elbow, roll the pelvis from side to side without tipping your shoulders and without moving your feet. You’ll lift the right hip and lower the left, then lift the left and lower the right.
  2. In the same position on the ball, roll the ball in a circle with your pelvis, to the right and then to the left, controlling the motion of the ball throughout the circle. Again, maintain the feet flat on the ground and the upper body stable.

Riders whose performance of these exercises scored high also scored high for harmony with their horse while riding, and their horses worked at higher heart rates with fewer conflict behaviours. That means the horses were working more correctly with less confusion, which improves the relationship between horse and rider!

The third exercise examined was a balance exercise where riders were asked to extend their arms horizontally in front and then lift their feet off the ground, attempting to balance for 30 seconds. Interestingly, riders who scored well on this exercise showed a negative correlation with harmony while riding. The authors hypothesized that the different muscle contractions required for balancing in this position versus balancing in a riding position made the exercise unhelpful for riding. 

Uldahl, M; Christensen, J; Clayton, H. (2021) Relationships between the Rider’s Pelvic Mobility and Balance on a Gymnastic Ball with Equestrian Skills and Effects on Horse Welfare. Animals 11:2, 453.

How to Turn a Horse

Often when a new client brings me a horse of theirs for a training lesson I ask a few simple questions to make sure all three of us (them, their horse, and I) are all on the same page. Their responses are interesting and surprisingly consistent:

Me: How do you tell your horse to go?

Client: I speed up my seat and then squeeze my legs.

Me: How do you tell your horse to stop?

Client: I slow down my seat and then squeeze the reins.

Me: [So far so good…] And how do you tell your horse to turn?

Client: First I half halt with my reins and legs at the same time, then I turn my head and put my inside hip forward, with my inside leg at the girth and my outside leg back. Then my outside hip pushes forward and around, my inside rein opens, and my outside rein pushes while both legs squeeze alternately and I close my left eye and wiggle my right big toe.

Right. That was confusing. Do you think perhaps the horse is confused too?

Having different cues for different responses that are clearly separated from one another is incredibly important for our horses’ mental well-being. If pressure from the rider’s lower leg sometimes means ‘go’ and sometimes means ‘turn’ in a slightly different combination, it is easy to get a confused horse, and confused horses generally cope in one of two ways: they shut down and stop responding, or they overreact and develop unwanted behaviour.

This isn’t to say that cues can’t become more complicated and closer together as horse and rider both progress. The most physically complicated movement in dressage is the pirouette, a turn on the spot at either walk or canter, which combines three basic responses in the space of three steps—less than one stride! Even then, the cues do not come at the same time. The rider cues for each response one at a time to build it into the pirouette.

What does it take to get to that point?

For both training the horse and training a riding student, I start at the very beginning with the simplest cues, which are pressure-based. In a new or frightening situation, the pressure-based cues are what the horse can fall back on and respond to reliably. I always start, then, with leg pressure for go, rein pressure for stop, and a single rein to the side for turn.

If horse and rider were to stay at this stage, that would be alright, though a bit rustic. But neither would improve, and it is better for the horse to reduce pressure cues. When the basic pressure cues are understood and are becoming reliable, I start to introduce seat cues. These are the rider’s movement patterns in the saddle that the horse can feel and respond to before receiving pressure from the bit or legs. A rider may speed up the movement of the seat for ‘go’, slow it down for ‘stop’, or turn the torso for ‘turn’. The horse quickly learns to feel the weight shift and predict what pressure will come next, allowing him to act first and avoid the pressure. This learning process is called classical conditioning.

Classically conditioned cues like seat or voice cues are less reliable than pressure cues in a new or scary situation. That is why I do not begin with classical cues. I prefer to have a solid foundation for horse and rider that I can build on to create beautiful movement and mutual understanding.

Better Relationship, Easier Handling: Effect of Training Method

A recent study investigated whether the human-horse bond could be considered ‘attachment’ by the scientific definition of the term. This involves security and comfort being derived from the relationship.

The relationship and attachment of dogs and cats to humans has been studied much more than that of horses, but this preliminary study with 12 horses is the starting place for more research in future.

Methods

The twelve horses were assessed before the training began in an arena with four novel objects and two unfamiliar humans. This assessed their fear responses to new situations and whether they found the presence of unfamiliar humans to be reassuring.

The horses were then trained over a period of ten days for fifteen minutes by the same trainer in ten simple tasks including stepping forward, stopping, standing still, and moving either the shoulders or the hips sideways. One group of horses was trained this using only negative reinforcement (the removal of pressure to reinforce the correct response). The other two groups were trained with combined reinforcement, which is negative reinforcement combined with positive reinforcement (the addition of something pleasant as a reward for a correct response). One combined reinforcement group had food rewards, and the other had wither scratching as a reward.

A post training test was conducted with four new novel objects and two people near the objects. One of these people was unfamiliar, and the other was the horses’ trainer so that it could be assessed if the horse showed attachment behaviours towards the familiar person. The researchers also wanted to see if the method of training used affected the horses’ responses to novel objects.

Lastly, a handling test was conducted consisting of five challenging and potentially fear inducing situations that the horse was led through by an unfamiliar handler or by the trainer to investigate effect of training method and familiarity of the human on the horses’ reactions.

Results

The researchers were unable to find a difference between horse behaviour toward the trainer versus behaviour toward the stranger between the pre- and post-tests. Horses that were willing to investigate the novel objects in the pre- test did so also in the post-test. Their heart rates, however, were significantly lower in the post-test, indicative either of the horse getting used to the testing scenario, or perhaps showing an effect of correct training in producing relaxation, which has been demonstrated in other studies. During the handling test, there was no difference in measured behaviours when being handled by the trainer versus the stranger.

There is not enough evidence from this study to conclude that scientific attachment occurs between horses and humans, but the reasons for this may be several.

  • There were few training sessions. Horses may take longer to form an attachment than other species.
  • The horses were lesson horses. They were therefore frequently handled by many humans and may have generalized to consider all humans as positive.
  • This was a pilot study. There were only 12 horses used, which is a good start but further research is required.

Reference

Hartmann, E; Rehn, T; Christensen, JW; Nielsen, PP; and McGreevy, P. (2021) From the Horse’s Perspective: Investigating Attachment Behaviour and the Effect of Training Method on Fear Reactions and Ease of Handling—A Pilot Study. Animals 11: 457. Open Access: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/11/2/457