A scientist from the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences is investigating if horses in groups can learn from each other not to be afraid of unknown objects.
Scientists at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences are investigating how much horses can learn from each other when they are in groups. Photo: Janne Hansen
The horse takes a sniff and takes a few hesitant steps to the side. First it has left the familiarity of its group, and now something strange and unknown is moving in the grass. Should it take a closer look at the mysterious object or make a quick escape? The horse is part of a behavioural study at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at Aarhus University. The aim is to study fear and social learning in the animals.
"Horseback-riding is a dangerous sport and most accidents with horses occur when the horse is frightened. We would therefore like to find out if you can reduce or avoid fear reactions in horses", says scientist Janne Winther Christensen from the Department of Animal Health, Welfare and Nutrition.
According to Statistics Denmark, horseback riding is the third most dangerous sport in Denmark measured by the number of accidents, but if you measure by the number of accidents in relation to the number of riders, then it is the most dangerous of all. Unfortunately, quite a few accidents involving horses are serious and children and youths are a vulnerable group. Frightened horses that escape from their pastures also cause accidents on the highways.
If you can teach horses not be afraid of every new thing they meet, then you are well on your way to solving the problem. The question is if that is at all possible.
Two can learn from each other
Until now, social learning in horses has not been proven, but in previous trials Janne Winther Christensen has shown that when two horses are together, one of them can teach the other not to be afraid. This means that social learning actually does take place.
Does this exchange of experience between horses have to be kept on a one-to-one level or can a "teacher horse" be found that can teach a whole group of horses? This is what Janne Winther Christensen is now studying in a new series of research trials.
With the aid of a feeding test she has found the most dominant horse in groups of four mares. The dominant horse is trained daily in being away from its group in order to learn to get used to meeting new objects - such as a black plastic bag being dragged over the ground close to the horse.
"We want to see if the other horses in the group react with less fear if we have a horse that has been trained not to be afraid. In other words, we want to see if the horses can learn from each other's experience", explains Janne Winther Christensen.
Secure in the group
Even just being taken away from the group is something that makes the horse nervous. Therefore, the scientist keeps an eye on the horse's pulse and behaviour during the whole process. If the horse is too nervous because it misses the feeling of safety from being in the group, then the exercise with the plastic bag will stop.
"We know from earlier studies that it is best to proceed gradually", Janne Winther Christensen points out.
In the course of each exercise the horse is returned to the group at regular intervals to reward it and to calm it down, but after a while the horse is kept away for longer and longer periods. When the dominant horse has got used to the new, potentially scary object, then it is the group's turn. The scientist will then observe if the experienced horse can communicate its experience to the others in the group.
The horse behaviour project is part of a three-year research project regarding fear and social learning financed by the Research Council.