Why horses and their riders can sometimes have a cow of a day

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"In contrast to our expectations, cows were not better tolerated by horses than a novel, mobile object."
“In contrast to our expectations, cows were not better tolerated by horses than a novel, mobile object,” the researchers said.

Most riders have been there. It’s a sunny day and you’re quietly pottering along a quiet country road.  Then, from left field, a cow looms into view.

The horse freezes, or worse still, bounces with alarm. No amount of encouragement will convince your mount that passing the cow is a good idea.

Researchers in Poland, in a just-published study, have delved into the heterospecific fears of horses — that is, their fear of other species.

Anna Wiśniewska and her fellow researchers noted that, historically, cattle and working equines were often kept and grazed together, becoming familiar with each other.

Today, in many countries, most horses and cattle are kept in separate facilities so rarely, or never, meet in pastures or yards.

In particular, when horses are housed for riding in suburban areas, mostly being exercised in controlled environments such as indoor or outdoor arenas, they do not experience contact with other ungulates of a similar size at all.

“When suddenly exposed to a cow during riding outside the equestrian centre, many horses thus respond with fear and avoidance behaviours,” the researchers wrote in the journal Animals.

The study team set up an experiment to test the responses of horses towards two cows and a novel moving object. They wanted to test whether cows provoked behavioural and cardiac fear responses in horses, and whether these responses differed to those shown to other potential dangers.

Twenty healthy warmblood riding horses — 13 geldings and 7 mares — were exposed to two different cows, a mobile object, or no object.

The horses belonged to the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland, and were maintained in a riding centre under the care of one of the authors. The experiment took place in a 40m by 20m arena — an environment familiar to the horses.

In one phase, two different-looking cows were separately presented in the arena setting, tethered in a pen at one end of the area. The adjoining arena was marked out in three sectors, with sector 1 being the closest to the cows and sector 3 the furthest away.

The time spent at different distances from the cow was measured. The researchers also monitored the horses’ heart rate, to see whether they could find evidence of each horse’s perceived fear at various distances from the cows. The warmbloods were also filmed so that the time in each sector could be measured, and the horses assessed for behaviours indicating alertness.

The stimuli used in the study: Cow 1 (A), Cow 2 (B) and the Box (C). The cows were tethered for the photo but free to move during the study. Two electric cables power the mechanism hidden in the cardboard box.
The stimuli used in the study: Cow 1 (A), Cow 2 (B) and the Box (C). The cows were tethered for the photo but free to move during the study. Two electric cables power the mechanism hidden in the cardboard box.

 

The experiment was then repeated with a large box on wheels, which could be automatically moved 15cm at a time without being approached.

Two months later, an experiment was conducted with the horses on a lead, in which half were led toward one of the cows, and half were led toward the box. Heart variables were again monitored.

“The horses avoided the area nearest to all stimuli,” the study team reported. Led horses’ responses to the cow and box were rated as more fearful as the distance to the stimulus decreased.

Mares had a higher heart rate than geldings across all tests.

Heart rate was positively correlated with the fearfulness rating at the furthest distance from the cow and box.

“Our results show that these horses’ avoidance response to cows was similar or higher to that shown towards a novel moving object,” they said. This suggests that both neophobia — fear of novel objects — and fear of contact with unfamiliar species potentially play a role in this reaction.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said both the cow and box were generally quite well tolerated, in terms of alertness and the cardiac response, when compared with the control results. “However, the avoidance of the stimuli and changes in cardiac activity could still be observed.

“In contrast to our expectations, cows were not better tolerated by horses than a novel, mobile object.

“Our results confirm previous findings that horses, as prey animals whose initial reaction to potential threats is often flight, are sensitive to (potentially) all unknown frightening stimuli, and this propensity to react with fearfulness, as encoded in equine temperament, still exists despite years of domestication and selection against fearful behaviour.

When horses are housed for riding in suburban areas, mostly being exercised in controlled environments such as indoor or outdoor arenas, they do not experience contact with other ungulates of a similar size at all, the researchers said.
When horses are housed for riding in suburban areas, mostly being exercised in controlled environments such as indoor or outdoor arenas, they do not experience contact with other ungulates of a similar size at all, the researchers said.

“Instinctive reactions to mobile objects, living or not, provoke avoidance in horses. In a ridden or hand‐leading situation, in particular, when horses are restrained, the restraint per se may provoke a stress response.”

In the leading test, all but one of the horses allowed the approach to the stimulus, although they were reluctant to approach them voluntarily, indicating that trained horses can rather easily be habituated to objects they previously avoided.

“Since horses, similar to other domestic animals such as dogs or goats, seek human support when confronted with a challenging task, the presence of the handler could also in this case play a supportive role.

“It seems then, that a cow is just another novel object to which the horses, when appropriately trained, can easily habituate.”

The cardiac responses indicated that the cows were perceived by horses as more frightening than another object, a mobile box. “This result shows that even when alerted, horses are able to assess to some degree of level of the aversiveness of the object they are afraid of.

“Although we showed here that in the studied horse population, cows provoked higher avoidance responses than a similar‐sized inanimate mobile object, our study does not explain why this was so. It is possible that the behaviour of cows, rather than that of the box, was more unpredictable for horses.

“In this study, we found cows to be the objects that horses preferred to avoid,” they said. “Although the two species studied can be successfully pastured together, it seems that in the restricted conditions of a relatively small test arena in our study, horses were not comfortable in the presence of cows.”

Interactions and communication between these two species cannot be excluded as an explanation, they said. “This is an unexplored issue that deserves further investigation.

“Additionally, our study, showing stronger cardiac activity during the hand‐leading test in mares, indicates that sex differences in horses should be considered in temperament research and practical husbandry.”

The study team comprised Wiśniewska, Iwona Janczarek, Izabela Wilk, Ewelina Tkaczyk and Martyna Mierzicka, with the University of Life Sciences in Lublin; Christina Stanley, with the University of Chester in England; and Aleksandra Górecka‐Bruzda, with the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Wiśniewska, A.; Janczarek, I.; Wilk, I.; Tkaczyk, E.; Mierzicka, M.; Stanley, C.R.; Górecka-Bruzda, A. Heterospecific Fear and Avoidance Behaviour in Domestic Horses (Equus caballus). Animals 2021, 11, 3081. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11113081

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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