Effects of a calm companion on fear reactions.
Horses tend to show flight reactions to unfamiliar situations and potential dangers. High levels of fear can have negative consequences on performance, health and welfare, as well as potentially being dangerous. Although it is often used in practical situations, few studies have investigated the use of an older companion horse on fear reactions. Therefore, this article aims to investigate whether the presence of a calm companion horse influences fear reactions in naïve subject horses.
Thirty-six minimally handled 2-year-old stallions divided into a subject or companion group. Half of the companion horses were habituated to an otherwise frightening, standardised test stimulus, while the other half of the companion group acted as control group and were not habituated to the frightening stimulus. All horses were accustomed to the test area and to each other. The horses were randomly paired-up and the stimulus was given once, and heart rate and behavioural responses were registered. Subsequently, subject horses were exposed to the stimulus while on their own.
The results show that horses paired with a calm companion horse showed less fear-related behaviour and had a lower heart rate compared to horses paired with a control horse. Fascinatingly, these results were consistent when the subject horses were tested by themselves, that those who had been paired with a calm companion had less fear-response when faced with the same stimuli.
Expert opinion by Els Smet
The results confirm the benefits of using calm, experienced companions for habituation of naïve horses. However, further research would be helpful to determine in which situation or social contexts this influence is strongest.
> From: Christensen et al., Equine Vet J 40 (2008) 46-50. All rights reserved to Wiley Online Library. Click here for the online summary.