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Equine Science Sundays: Hay Neigh-bour!



Young horses are exposed to several changes in their life, which may impact how they perceive interactions with humans, and their performance during training.


Some management changes such as increased time in individual stalls and less time spent with other horses are common as horses begin their riding careers, which may add stress to an already stressful time in their life.


Flamand et al (2024) investigated how access to social contact impacted the behaviour of young horses as they started training. In this pilot study, 12 young horses were split into two groups: a social and an isolated group.


The social group were allowed to interact socially in pairs for 2 hours a day, in neighbouring stalls that allowed them to touch over the wall. Meanwhile, the isolated group had no access to a social partner.  The young horses had ad lib hay, and were housed in this manner for the first month of their training under a professional rider.


The researchers collected data for various behavioural variables during the stalled time and during training sessions: body tension, conflict behaviours, cooperation and ear position.


The researchers found that horses in the Social group displayed significantly different behaviours both when stalled and when in training.


Observations from horses in the social group included:

  • Fewer abnormal behaviours.

  • Stayed still more often when stalled individually.

  • More relaxed attitude during training and had a lower head position during training.

  • Less teeth grinding, but more tail swishing and head tossing.

    • The authors suggested that since these horses could express social behaviours daily, Social horses could express themselves in other contexts.

  • There were no differences in ear position or cooperation during training between groups.


Meanwhile, the horses in the Isolated group: 

  • Showed more stress-related behaviours, such as tense posture and defecation during training sessions.

  • Showed a tense attitude during training, but less head-tossing and tail swishing than Social horses.

  • Moved more in their stall, which may reflect a higher level of stress or frustration experienced by the horses.


As such, ensuring the horse has social contact can help to reduce abnormal behaviour, allow the horse to be more expressive, improve welfare, and contribute to a better human-horse relationship. While this French study showed an extreme management restriction of social contact which may not reflect common practices in North America, it speaks to how important social opportunities are for horse development, attitude, and ability to perform in a desired manner in training


The findings of this pilot study suggest that enriched environments which allow the horse opportunities to display normal behaviour can have positive impacts on the young horse’s training, as early training acts not only as an introduction to riding, but also to working with humans.


 

Reference


Flamand, A., Zellenka, C., Mos, J., Starczan, A., Polak, A., Petit,O. 2024. Neigh-bours: Why every young horse needs good friends. A pilot study during the breaking-in period. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 272: 106190. 


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