Encountering African wildlife all in a day’s work for safari horses

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A gathering of female giraffes in southern Africa. Photo: Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A gathering of female giraffes in southern Africa. Photo: Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Horses who take tourists to view the plains wildlife in Africa seem somewhat wary of giraffes, a fresh study reveals.

Researchers with the University of Bristol in England set out to gain preliminary insights into how both horses and wildlife handle their encounters.

Evelyn Hodgson, Nicola Rooney and Jo Hockenhull, all with the university’s veterinary school, said the financial cost of wildlife conservation in Africa is underpinned by tourist income. Safari adventures are a major part of this, and there are many wildlife-watching experiences.

Horseback safari rides, where tourists are led by experienced guides to find and observe wildlife, are popular, they said. However, close encounters between ridden horses and game species may be stressful for both types of animals.

Safari rides typically focus their encounters on plains game species that are herbivorous, not predators.

“Horses and herbivorous plains game species typically use locomotion as their anti‐predation strategy,” they said, “meaning they are highly vigilant, sensitive to the behaviour of other individuals within their group and have a well‐developed flight response.”

Grazing ungulates are also known to respond to the behavioural unease of other prey species nearby.

“The potential for two‐way emotional contagion between horses and game species during horseback safari rides may significantly impact the welfare of both the horses and the game species they encounter,” they wrote in the journal Animals.

For their study, the trio observed 17 group safari rides, averaging two hours each. The rides encompassed a total of 72 encounters with plains game species, for an average of 4.24 encounters per ride. In all, 20 horses were used across the safaris.

The study was conducted at an equestrian centre in a popular private game reserve in Gweru, Zimbabwe. The reserve comprises 1214 hectares of savannah grassland with free-ranging wildlife that includes blue wildebeest, impala, the South African giraffe, Burchell’s zebra, greater kudu, waterbuck and red hartebeest

All species were observed during the study.

The response of the horses appeared to be influenced by the species of game encountered. They generally approached the wildlife at a walk, and few flight behaviours were observed.

“Horses,” they said, “seemed more wary of giraffe than other species, with a higher percentage of horses showing stationary and retreat behaviour at the start of giraffe encounters. They were also most likely to shy at giraffe.”

The most extreme ears-back observations were seen during encounters with wildebeest, giraffes and impalas.

Fourteen horses, across nine encounters, withdrew from wildebeest at a trot, nine horses across six encounters withdrew from zebras at a trot, and nine horses across seven encounters withdrew from giraffes at a trot. All encounters with giraffes, waterbucks and red hartebeest ended when the horses moved away at a walk, as did the majority of encounters with impalas and zebras.

Across the 17 rides and 72 encounters, there were 37 shies. No horses were observed to rear or buck during any of the encounters with game species on any of the rides.

The researchers found that the seven game species encountered during the safaris differed in their behaviour towards the horses.

Wildebeest were the most frequently encountered and were also in the biggest groups, while red hartebeest were the least frequently encountered.

Response to the approaching horses varied between species, with zebras approaching the horses at a walk in 21% of encounters.

Retreat behaviours were seen when horses approached the game in 12% of wildebeest and 11% of impala encounters.

Most frequently, game responded to the approaching horses by standing still, either grazing/browsing, standing at rest, or standing alert.

“Kudu and impala more frequently retreated from the horses at higher speeds, thereby ending encounters rather than the horses moving away first.”

Discussing their findings, the researchers said observations suggest that zebra may recognise horses as fellow equids and therefore not perceive them as a threat, despite the presence of human riders.

“Overall,” they said, “most horses displayed vigilant response behaviours during game encounters, with ears pricked forwards and standing alert. These behaviours do not, however, necessarily indicate fear or stress, but may rather show alertness, interest and curiosity.

“Flight behaviour, such as shying or retreating, is the most extreme response and was rarely observed except for the occasional shy or backing up (in 4% of encounters).”

The horses, they said, were generally willing to calmly approach the game at a walk. “These results suggest that the horses did not usually exhibit behavioural indicators of severe stress during game encounters.”

The stress response seen in all the animals was not usually extreme, potentially indicating that the species had become at least partially accustomed to such interactions.

“These preliminary findings imply that the welfare implications of horseback safari rides are not entirely negative, although this varies with the game species encountered.”

Kudu, waterbuck and red hartebeest showed the most extreme flight response towards the safari rides, while giraffes and zebras appeared less affected, and even curious, with a small percentage approaching the horses.

“Before firm conclusions can be drawn on the welfare implications of horseback safari rides, it is recommended that future studies utilise multiple welfare indicators, encompassing behavioural and physiological measures, and evaluate the long‐term and indirect consequences of horseback safari rides.”

This information could then be used to help develop best-practice guidelines within the industry, such as maximum distances that different species can be approached by riders on horseback, to reduce stress, improve welfare, and ensure safety and enjoyment for riders.

Hodgson, E.; Rooney, N.J.; Hockenhull, J. Preliminary Behavioural Observations of Horseback Safaris: Initial Insights into the Welfare Implications for Horses and Herbivorous Plains Game Species. Animals 2022, 12, 441. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12040441

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

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