There is a lot of interest in the behaviour and stress levels of young horses during early handling and training.
Danish vets took 24 unhandled three-year-old Icelandic horses straight from their studs and gave them basic handling so that they were halter-broken and would wear a girth that held heart rate monitors.
The horses were then divided into two groups. Half received no further training but were turned out individually into an indoor school for 10min each day with a female groom standing still in the corner.
The others were taken individually into the same school for 10min a day, but were trained by a female groom to stop and start while walking in hand, walk in circles and figures of eight, back up and walk on the lunge.
All 24 horses then underwent standard fear and stress tests. Their behaviour and heart rates were recorded as they were exposed to a multicoloured umbrella placed next to a familiar feed bin and as they passed between two unfamiliar striped traffic cones.
The trained horses were tested in the presence of their female groom — but also in the presence of an unfamiliar male groom.
It was expected that the trained horses would be less spooked and stressed by the tests, but the results showed that the trained ponies only appeared less fearful if they were in the presence of the female groom.
The trained ponies were just as spooky as the untrained ones when an unfamiliar person was present. And when the heart rates were analysed, even the trained ponies with their familiar trainers had the same rise in heart rates as the untrained ones.
So it seems as though a familiar human trainer may make a young horse appear less nervous, but inside it is just as fearful and maybe just as likely to do something unpredictable.
The scientists warn against false confidence with young horses that is based only upon their behaviour when they are with a familiar human friend.
Ref: Horse & Hound; 12 February 2015