Polish researchers recently completed a study designed to help determine why horses are afraid of other animal species. Dr. Anna Wiśniewska and her research team focused specifically on cattle, which many horses seem terrified of.
Cattle and horses have traditionally lived together and were familiar with each other. In many modern operations however, most cattle and horses live separately, so they very rarely encounter one another. Horses kept in suburban areas may go their whole lives without exposure to bovines or other hooved animals.
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When horses that are not used to cows are exposed to one outside of their familiar barn, they may act fearful and try to avoid the cow. The research team from the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, the University of Chester in England, and the Polish Academy of Sciences created a study to determine if horses were more fearful of cows than other novel objects.
They created an experiment using 20 healthy riding horses; they put each horse individually in an arena familiar to them and exposed them to two different cows tethered in the space and a box on wheels. They also exposed them to nothing so they had a control.
The arena was marked off in sections, with section one being closest to the cow and section three being furthest away. The researchers then measured how much time the horses spent at different distances from the cow, as well as the horse’s heart rate. The horse’s reactions were also recorded.
Two months later, each horse was led either toward one of the cows or toward the box. The horse’s heart rate was monitored. While loose, the horses avoided the area closest to the cow and the box; horses that were led became more fearful the closer they got to the cow and the box.
The results showed that the horses were as afraid or more afraid of the cow than a box. The scientists say this reaction suggests that the horse’s fear of novel objects may also be a part of a horse’s fear of unfamiliar species.
The team concludes that as prey animals, horses are sensitive to unknown and frightening stimuli, and they often act in fear despite years of domestication and selection against fearful behavior. This instinct to avoid fearful objects, living or not, may be exacerbated when the horse is restrained (in this case led toward the object). They also concluded that with handler support, trained horses can be easily habituated to objects they once found scary.
Read the full study here.
Read more at HorseTalk.
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