Study: Fearful Foals Make Fearful Horses

A Danish study sought to decode behavior in foals that might indicate which ones may become fearful adults. Fearful horses can be dangerous if placed in uneducated hands; if bred, they can pass the trait on to their offspring.

Drs. Janne Winther Christensen, Carina Beblein and Jens Malmkvist note that horses will always face situations that can scare them, but through habituation and breeding for a calm demeanor, they can be trained to not flee.

Horses that are scared cause accidents; the researchers note that everyone involved with horses, from those who breed to those who play sports and teach others how to ride, have a responsibility to try to reduce accidents. They also report that it is unethical to breed fearful animals as it has a negative impact on animal welfare.

However, to study equine fearfulness, the same group of horses need to be kept in the identical management situations for the first three or four years of their lives, which is unusual. Winther Christensen and her team followed 25 Warmblood stallions from five months to 3.5 years of age; they were kept as a group with limited human handling.

The researchers reported that foals on their dams’ side showed distinct differences in how they approached novel items. Some foals hurried back to their mothers when they saw a scary object while others approached and investigated it. Heart rate monitors showed that the foals that hurried back to their mothers had higher heart rates than the more-inquisitive foals.

Tested again as 3-year-olds, the same horses had similar reactions; overall, the horses that were more alert to the object had more pronounced fear reactions. The team determined that a foal’s expression of alertness can help predict later behavior. Fearfulness is consistent across ages, which is helpful to know to ensure proper training and handling of the most-fearful horses. Additionally, if breeders were to breed only calm horses, after a few generations the population would generally become less fearful.

Read more at Horses and People.

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