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Fear testing of foals can contribute to higher safety in the equestrian sports

A new study at Aarhus University shows that it is possible to identify fearful horses at a very early age by means of an objective fear test. This gives a better opportunity of ensuring that especially sensitive horses are placed in capable hands from the beginning. And this is good news both for the rider’s safety and the horse’s welfare.

[Translate to English:] Lektor Janne Winther Christensen forsker i heste ved Institut for Husdyrvidenskab på Aarhus Universitet i Foulum, hvor hun har gennemført et unikt langtidsstudie om frygtadfærd hos føl og ungheste. Foto: Viborg Stifts Folkeblad.
[Translate to English:] Lektor Janne Winther Christensen forsker i heste ved Institut for Husdyrvidenskab på Aarhus Universitet i Foulum, hvor hun har gennemført et unikt langtidsstudie om frygtadfærd hos føl og ungheste. Foto: Viborg Stifts Folkeblad.

Fearfulness is an important aspect with regard to horses’ temperament. This applies for the horse’s usability for various purposes but particularly also for the rider’s and horse’s welfare and safety. Fearful animals are often difficult and dangerous to handle. One of the most frequent causes of riding accidents is that the horse is frightened
, which often affects children and teenagers. According to numbers from Ulykkes Analyse Gruppen (Accident Analysis Group) at Odense University Hospital, riding is the most dangerous leisure activity in Denmark when looking at the severity of personal injuries.

Researcher works for higher safety in the horse world

New results from Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University (AU), have shown that it is possible to identify the most fearful horses, already as a foal, by an objective fear test. This is important knowledge for the future use of horses. Associate professor Janne Winther Christensen, who has been doing research on horses since 2001, led the study. Her research has focused particularly on horses’ stress sensitivity, fearfulness and learning ability, and she knows the importance of understanding horses’ behaviour and fear reactions:

“Some riding accidents are accidental, for instance when the horse stumbles and falls. This kind of accident can be hard to foresee. However, we can actually do something about the number of accidents that happen when the horse gets scared,” says Janne W. Christensen. She clarifies: “If we can identify the horses that are the most disposed to display fear reactions early in life, we can place them in capable hands that can give them the correct training from the beginning. In that way, it will likely be possible to avoid many of the serious accidents.”

According to Janne W. Christensen, all horses can, in principle, be trained not to take flight when frightened. However, it takes very much experience, time and patience. Therefore, it often ends badly if the very fearful horse ends in unexperienced hands and is thus not met with the correct understanding and training. Obviously, when working with horses, safety is something that is very much on Janne W. Christensen’s mind.

A unique long-term study of horses

The study was conducted over approximately three years during which a group of stallions were studied from foal to adult. The aim was to study whether the behavioural and physiological fear reactions that foals display during a fear test when they are around five months old can be retrieved in fear tests  during the horse’s adult life.

The study included 25 Danish Warmblood stallions from a private stud. The foals were kept with the dams on large pastures until weaning and remained relatively unhandled until training for the first five-month’s test. All foals were weaned together at the age of seven to nine months and were kept in groups in a loose housing system with stallions and mares together. At 1.5 years of age, the stallions were moved to another stable and were housed in littered boxes with five stallions in each box.

The study is the first of its kind to examine fearfulness in horses over a period this long and from this early age.

“We have a truly unique data set in this study. It is unusual to have such a big group of horses housed in the same place from foal to adult, which we have been able to do in this case. When we do these kind of studies, it is crucial that the horses are kept under the same rearing conditions. Otherwise, differences in housing, management and training could affect the horses’ reactions and thus the study results,” explains Janne W. Christensen.

How was the test conducted?

In the study, all stallions were introduced to a fear test – a so-called “novel object test” (NOT1) – three times at different ages: five months, one year and three years.

 

Before the test, the foals were trained to enter a test arena and walk to their dam who was placed in the other end of the arena. In the NOT1 test, a white plastic cover with boxes of different colours was placed in the middle of the test arena. During the test, the foal should pass the test object on its way to the dam (in the five-month test) or to a feed trough (in the three-year test).

På billedet t.v. ses opstillingen til NOT1-testen gennemført ved føllets/unghestens fem måneders og et års alder. Billedet t.h. viser en hest, der rører et objekt i NOT1-testen gennemført ved tre-årsalderen. I den påmonterede gjord sidder udstyr til måling af hjertefrekvens. Foto: Janne W. Christensen.The setup for the NOT1 test conducted when the horses were 5 months, 1 yr and 3 yr of age (left), and a horse touching the object in the 3 yr test (right). The girth is mounted with equipment for heart rate measurement. Photo: Janne W. Christensen.

 

Two additional types of “novel object tests” were conducted at one and three years of age in which new objects different from those in the NOT1 test were included. Here, the horses should also pass the test objects in order to reach a feed trough. 

Billedet t.v. viser den forsøgsopstilling, som blev brugt til NOT2-testen, gennemført med et års hestene. Billedet t.h. viser en hest, der snuser til et objekt under NOT3-testen gennemført ved tre-årsalderen. Foto: Janne W. Christensen.

Setup used for the NOT2 test, which was conducted with the one-year-old horses (left), and  a horse sniffing the object during the NOT3 test conducted with the three-year-old horses (right). Photo: Janne W. Christensen.    

 

Video was recorded of all tests, and equipment for measuring the heart rate was mounted on a girth. The following types of registrations were collected during the tests:

  • Heart rate
  • Latency to reach the dam/feed trough
  • Alertness (vigilant position with elevated head/neck focusing on the object)
  • Explorative behaviour
  • Sniffing at the test object
  • Touching the test object

The study tested the coherence between the various types of behaviour and the heart rate as well as the coherence of the test results between the various ages.

Fearfulness is a lifelong companion

The study showed that there was an obvious coherence between the tests at the various ages. It also showed that foals’ behavioural reactions towards new objects was the best predictor of their fearfulness later in life. Thus, fearfulness in horses appears  to be a rather stable trait, which is testable from a very young age and remains a characteristic of the horse’s temperament - also in adulthood.

Fear test of foals – an important piece of the puzzle for obtaining higher safety

Janne W. Christensen describes the result of the study as an important piece of a large puzzle on the way to increase safety during riding and handling horses. As fearfulness is inheritable, breeders could benefit from using a standardised fear test to avoid breeding on the most fearful horses.

“There has been a tendency to breed dressage horses with extreme movements like high front leg lifts during trot, as this used to be rewarded with high marks in dressage competitions. Unfortunately, exaggerated movements are likely connected to fearfulness, as we also know from other prey species, e.g. gazelles, where frightened animals display exaggerated movements.. When breeding for horses with very big mcovements, we can end up with fearful and stress sensitive horses, which is unfortunate for horse welfare and safety” says Janne W. Christensen.

It is not only in breeding that we would benefit from testing horses’ fearfulness. Janne W. Christensen also imagines that an objective fear test can be developed and adjusted for the use of veterinarians in relation to horse trade examinations. Should this be introduced, future horse owners will have more objective knowledge about a horse’s temperament, and whether the horse will be an appropriate match for them, before buying the horse.

Rearing environment and education are also important factors

The foal’s rearing also plays a big role for the level of fearfulness in a horse. Previous studies from AU have shown that foals learn readily from the dam. If the mare is trained to react calmly towards new objects, it will influence the foal. Another part of Janne W. Christensen’s research has shown that young horses display less fearfulness towards novel objects if they are grouped with a more calm and experienced horse. General stimulation of the foal and habituation to new objects early in life are very important factors when it comes to training a safe and stable riding horse.

Last but not least, the education of the rider is yet another important area: “Understanding the horse’s behaviour and fear reactions are crucially important to reduce the number of accidents. The more knowledge the rider has regarding handling and training the horse, and the better trained the horse is – the higher safety in the equestrian sports we will be able to obtain,” concludes Janne W. Christensen.

 

Behind the research

Funding

The study has been supported by Centre of Companion Animal Welfare (Skibsreder Per Henriksen, R. og Hustrus Fond) and the Independent Research Fund Denmark, Technology and Production.    

Collaboration

Professor Christine Nicol, University of Oxford, was part of the project testing foals and 1-year-old horses. Tests of 3.5-year-old horses was conducted by AU only.    

More information

Link to the full scientific article:    
Development and consistency of fearfulness in horses from foal to adult: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159120301945?via%3Dihub

Other sources and references

www.rideulykker.dk: Ulykkes Analyse Gruppen at Odense University Hospital


Scientific article: Early-life object exposure with a habituated mother reduces fear reactions in foals:     https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-015-0924-7

Scientific article: Attenuation of fear through social transmission in groups of same and differently aged horses: 
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159118301059   

Contact

Janne Winther Christensen, Department of Animal Science, Aarhus University

E-mail: jwc@anis.au.dk