Horses who have had fewer owners are more accepting of novel tasks

  • Horses who have been in their homes longer and had fewer changes of owner are more accepting of novel tasks, according to research.

    A study published in ScienceDirect by researchers from the University of Turku in Finland looked at the horse-human relationship and how horses react when being handled by familiar people. The aim was to determine whether horses reacted differently to situations based on who was interacting with them, how many owners they have had, and the number of handlers dealing with them regularly.

    Researchers assessed the reactions of 76 horses – 38 mares and 41 geldings – when they were asked to walk over “novel surfaces”, a fluffy blue blanket and a white tarpaulin, and when they were presented with a “novel object”, a rainbow-coloured soft toy. The length of ownership between the horses varied from six months to 15 years; 27 of the horses were still owned by, or had been bought from, their breeders, and the remainder had been sold more than once.

    During the test the horses were led over one of the surfaces in a randomised order by their main caregiver, and the other surface by an unfamiliar handler. The object test involved the horses being presented with the soft toy in front of them, and being touched on the neck with it. The “reluctance levels” of the horses were recorded using an ethogram and analysed with a statistical model.

    The results showed that horses with only one regular handler were significantly more likely to approach the surfaces without reluctance; 75% were non-reluctant, 23% mildly reluctant and 2% strongly reluctant. It was found that 13% of horses with one regular handler refused to be touched by the soft toy, 45% were non-reluctant, and 42% were mildly reluctant. Only 32% of horses with more than one handler were non-reluctant towards the surfaces and 42% showed reluctance towards the soft toy.

    The researchers found that the probability of the horses’ approaching the surfaces without displaying reluctant behaviour increased with relationship length between the horse and familiar handler. After six years of ownership horses had “significantly more chance” of approaching the surfaces without showing hesitation.Those owned for at least eight years showed more probability of accepting being touched by the soft toy.

    Horses aged 18 to 26 were more likely to step on the surface when being led by a familiar handler – and horses aged two to six were faster to touch the soft toy compared to horses in older groups. Sex did not have an impact on the surface or object test.

    The researchers discussed that a horse’s past experience with humans had an influence on the “quality of their current and future relationships with humans”.

    “Horses with multiple regular handlers were more reluctant towards novel objects and surfaces and similarly, horses that had changed owner multiple times or had shorter relationships with the familiar handler were less comfortable in novel situations,” they said.

    The researchers concluded that having multiple handlers, numerous owner changes and a short relationship length increased reluctance to novel objects and surfaces and therefore “may negatively impact the horse-human interactions” during novel tasks.

    “Our findings suggest that a positive horse-human relationship may take time to develop as it is shaped by multiple factors involving the horse’s previous interactions and events with humans as well as repeated interactions that affect the everyday life of the horse,” they said.

    “The results of this study contribute much-needed knowledge on human-animal relationships which should be considered when investigating animal welfare”.

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