Pereira-Figueiredo I, Costa H, Carro J, Stilwell G, Rosa I. 2017. Behavioural changes induced by handling at different timeframes in Lusitano yearling horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 196: 36–43 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.06.016
This study explored the effects of different handling protocols on the trainability and fearfulness of 50 Lusitano foals. The value of early handling on reactivity and trainability has received research attention in the past, but the findings have been inconclusive and have differed between studies. In this experiment, Pereira-Figueiredo et al. compared foals in five different treatment groups. There were three groups that received three short handling sessions at different time-points. One group were handled at birth and one group were handled the day after weaning, time-points that had been identified as optimal for handling young foals in previous studies). The third group were handled at a randomly chosen time of approximately 50 days of age. The remaining two groups were a non-handled group which underwent the training sessions but were otherwise unhandled and a control group where the foals received no handling or training.
At 9 months of age, all foals underwent a test in an unfamiliar environment with a motionless unfamiliar handler followed by an unfamiliar handler who approached them. Seven days later the foals, with the exception of the control group, received four training sessions. The next month all foals were subjected to a three-phase test procedure designed to assess the reaction of the foals to being isolated from conspecifics, their fearfulness/reactivity, neophobia and the quality of relationship with an unknown handler. While there were no significant differences between the behaviour of the handled and unhandled groups in the motionless person test, significant differences were seen when the person approached the foals. The foals handled at birth and at weaning showed less fearfulness, locomotor activity and tolerated a closer approach than the control group. In the final test, it was the group handled at weaning that performed the best, passing all phases of the test and learning faster than the other groups. The foals handled at birth were less reactive but did not learn better than the group handled at 50 days of age and proved difficult to handle. The researchers drew three main conclusions: handling foals at birth reduces emotionality but may create an inappropriate relationship with humans and lead to signs of learned helplessness; weaning is the optimal time to introduce foals to handling as evidenced by improved learning and manageability; lastly, early handling improves the human-horse relationship.
This was quite an ambitious study with a large number of measures taken and between group comparisons made. I know that journals are quite strict on the length of submitted papers and there was a lot to squeeze into this one but I would have liked to learn more about what prompted the authors to suggest that foals handled at birth were showing signs of learned helplessness rather than just lower learning ability. I would say that the authors’ final conclusion on the human-horse relationship seemed more about the ease of handling the foals and their manageability than the relationship between foal and handler – but maybe that is just me being picky!