Does social motivation reduce fear in horses? Researchers investigate

Study findings confirm the role of other herd members as a social buffer and the importance of social motivation to confront a stressor.

The social desire of horses to join a herd has been tested in a study, with the motivation found to act as a leveler between socially dependent and self-reliant animals.

Living in a herd has multiple advantages for social species, Wiktoria Janicka and her fellow researchers noted in the journal Animal Cognition. It is, for example, a primary survival strategy for prey animals.

The presence of other members of a species, acting as a social buffer, may reduce the individual stress response.

Social isolation is particularly stressful for horses, who are gregarious animals. “However, they are not equally vulnerable to separation from the group,” the study team, with the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland, said.

Janicka, together with Izabela Wilk and Tomasz Próchniak, set out to test whether more and less socially dependent horses and independent individuals would differ in their responses to novel and sudden sounds occurring in two contexts – when there was social motivation to join a herd, and when there was no motivation present.

The study involved 20 Warmblood horses who initially underwent two social tests to evaluate their individual levels of social dependence.

Fear audio tests were then performed to compare their responses to sudden sounds in two scenarios: While feeding (non-social motivation) and while moving towards the herd (social motivation).

The horses previously assessed as socially dependent showed more pronounced avoidance behaviour and needed much more time to resume feeding during the trial that involved no social motivation. Hence, dependent individuals appeared to be more fearful.

However, during the social motivation experiment, horses from both groups tended to ignore the sound or paid only limited attention to the stimulus, continuing to move forward toward the herd.

Horses’ reactions were usually limited to slowing down after hearing the sound or eventually stopping for a while.

“Even when hesitating, they decided to move forward to stay closer to the herd.

“Thus, the motivation to join the group was too strong for an unexpected, novel sound to stop both independent and dependent horses from further movement.”

The researchers concluded that the strong need to stay in proximity to members of the group mitigates fear caused by a frightening stimulus.

“The results of the current study may have practical implications,” they said. “Horse owners should be aware of the existence of social dependence in horses and its correlations with fearfulness.”

The authors said their findings confirmed the role of other herd members as a social buffer and the importance of social motivation to confront a stressor.

“This factor should be considered in horse management when handling or schooling animals.”

Janicka, W., Wilk, I. & Próchniak, T. Does social motivation mitigate fear caused by a sudden sound in horses? Anim Cogn 26, 1649–1660 (2023).

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

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