Long-Term Horse-Owner Relationship Helps Horses Cope With Change

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By Mark Andrews

A new study shows that horses can be more reluctant in new situations if they have multiple riders or have had several owners, or if the horse has been with its current owner for only a short time. 

The international research team, including scientists from Turku and Helsinki Universities in Finland and the INRAE of Nouzilly in France, studied interactions between horses and humans as well as how horses react in new situations. The findings are published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science

Over the millennia horses have been living with humans, they have developed impressive social skills — they are receptive to human emotions and are very good at understanding human demands.

“Domestic horses may spend several hours daily in close contact with humans, which can affect horse welfare, physiology, and behaviour,” says the lead author of the study, Doctoral Researcher Océane Liehrmann from the Department of Biology at the University of Turku, Finland.

“Therefore, it is important to understand which factors can influence the horses’ emotions during interactions with humans and what shapes their relationship — particularly in novel situations that can be very stressful to the animals.”

The researchers recruited 76 privately owned leisure horses from the Turku area to perform two behavioural tests, in which they observed and analysed the horses’ reactions to novel objects. 

In the first test, horses were led to walk on two surfaces that were new to them: a white tarpaulin sheet and a fluffy blanket. They were led to one of the surfaces by their owner and to the other one by an unfamiliar researcher.

Secondly, the researchers studied whether, when presented with a new object, the horse reacted differently depending on whether they were with a familiar owner or with a stranger. Horses were shown a fluffy stuffed toy by either their owner or an unfamiliar researcher. The horse had one minute in which to freely come and interact with the toy. Then the person approached the horse and tried to touch its neck with the toy.

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“Interestingly, horses with an exclusive relationship with their owner were the calmest when approaching the novel surfaces and easily agreed to be touched with the toy. Horses that are regularly ridden or trained by different persons showed more stress behaviours in the test situations," Liehrmann says.

Similarly, horses that had spent their whole life with their owner agreed more often to be touched with the new toy than horses that had had several owners during their lifetime. These horses presented more stress behaviours and refused more often to be touched with the toy.

“Horses often have to change ownership, which restricts their ability to make a long-term bond with specific humans. We were particularly interested in studying how the length of the relationship between the horse and the owner affects the horse’s behaviour in new, potentially stressful situations,” Liehrmann says.

The results showed that horses with shorter relationships with their owner were more reluctant in novel situations and presented more stress behaviours when asked to interact with novel objects and surfaces. On the contrary, horses that had at least six to eight years of relationship with their owner were mostly very calm when introduced to the surfaces or the stuffed toy.

Horses older than 17 years old refused more often to step on the tarp or the blanket when they were led by a stranger, while they almost all agreed to do so when they were led by their owner.

“Geriatric horses often suffer from poorer eyesight, and it has been shown that they may feel more anxiety towards new situations than younger horses. Therefore, older horses may perceive someone familiar as a secure base, feeling safer to walk over an unknown material when led by a familiar person.”

The study shows that having a shorter relationship with the owner, multiple handlers, and numerous changes of owner can increase the horse’s reluctance to interact with novel objects and surfaces and therefore may negatively impact the horse-human interactions in new situations.

“Our findings suggest that a positive horse-human relationship may take time to develop as it is shaped by multiple factors, such as the horse’s previous interactions with humans. Overall, the results show that animals’ relationships with their human caretakers should be better considered in animal welfare and its research,” Liehrmann concludes.

For more details, see: Multiple handlers, several owner changes and short relationship lengths affect horses’ responses to novel object tests. Océane Liehrmann, Alisa Viitanen, Veera Riihonen, Emmi Alander, Sonja E. Koski, Virpi Lummaa, Léa Lansade. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2022; 254: 105709 

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Published with the kind permission of Mark Andrews, Equine Science Update.

Photo: Shutterstock/Andrew Lever