Cry Wolf: Are Domesticated Horses Less Fearful Of Predators?

A study out of Poland sought to determine if domesticated horses responded to predators they have never encountered the same way their wild ancestors did: by fleeing. The research team hypothesized that horses would express anxiety when exposed to vocalizations of predators and that horses with Thoroughbred breeding would be more responsive to the cues as they are known for their sensitive nature.

Drs. Iwona Janczarek, Anna Stachurska, Witold Kędzierski, Anna Wiśniewska, Magdalena Ryżak and Agata Kozioł used 19 Polish horses in the study and concluded that the horses reacted more strongly to the growl of a leopard than the howl of a wolf, though they were unfamiliar with either predator. The scientists report that this may indicate that the horse is more afraid of a sound from an unknown predator that one known to their ancestors. The behavioral responses of the horses were less distinct then the physiological changes, the team noted.

The horses used in the study were between 6 and 10 years old; they were divided into three groups based on the amount of Thoroughbred in their pedigree: Six horses were 75 percent Thoroughbred; seven were half-Thoroughbred; and six were 25 percent Thoroughbred.

Individually, the horses listened to recordings of the gray wolf howling and a leopard growling for five minutes. The study team monitored salivary cortisol levels of the horses 10 minutes before and 10 minutes after the conclusion of the vocalizations. Each horse’s heart rate was continually monitored through the test.

The study team hypothesized that the horses with more Thoroughbred in their breeding would react more strongly to the vocalizations since Thoroughbreds are known for their sensitivity. They were correct: the horses with more Thoroughbreds in their pedigree had stronger internal reaction to the predator’s vocalizations. This suggests that the response is partially genetically coded and that the horses were more interested in the sounds rather than frightened by them.

This may also indicate that horses that are handled and trained by humans may be able to manage their emotions. Domesticated animals may not be able to coexist with predators like wolves being reintroduced into their environment and care should be taken to protect them.

Read the article here.

Read more at HorseTalk.

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