The role of mares in getting their foals used to potentially fearful objects has been shown in a Danish study.
Researcher Janne Winther Christensen says it is possible to reduce the fearfulness shown by foals through social transmission from the mare early in the foal’s life.
Christensen, from Aarhus University, conducted a study involving 22 pairs of mares and foals. She investigated whether the mares could be used to modify fearfulness in foals via social transmission of object habituation (lack of reaction to new potentially fear-inducing objects).
Pregnant mares were habituated to four standard fear-eliciting situations using desensitisation methods and a combination of positive and negative reinforcement.
The fear-eliciting situations involved touching and walking over plastic on the ground, walking past colourful objects, having a plastic bag wiped over the body and having an umbrella held over the body.
The pairs of mares and foals were divided into control and demo groups.
From birth to eight weeks of age, the mares of demo foals demonstrated their habituation to the four different situations (objects) for 10 minutes a day with the foal nearby, who was loose and free to interact with the training objects in the test arena during the demonstrations.
Mares of foals in the control group were handled in a similar way for the same amount of time in the arena but without any of the test objects – the umbrella, plastic or bags – present whilst their foals were also loose nearby.
The heart rate and behavioural reactions of all foals were recorded at eight weeks and five months of age as they underwent standardised fear tests, which included the objects and situations that were present during demonstrations as well as completely new objects.
At eight weeks, heart rates and fear reactions in the demo foals were significantly lower than in the control foals for all fear tests; with demo foals exhibiting more exploratory behaviour in all tests, indicating that the demo foals had generalised their habituation to potentially fear-inducing situations, including completely new objects, from their mothers.
This effect was still seen at five months, with demo foals still showing reduced fear reactions, but not substantially lower heart rates than the control foals that had not been exposed to their mothers being habituated very early in their life.
Christensen, discussing her findings at the International Society for Equitation Science conference in Denmark, suggested that the effect was probably achieved through a combination of maternal transmission of habituation and individual foal learning.
Understanding and managing fearfulness in horses is important to both human safety and horse welfare.