Horses have been living together with human for thousands of years – a long co-evolution that helped them develop impressive social skills: they seem to be highly receptive to human emotions and are proficient at understanding human demands. A new study led by the University in Turku in Finland has found that horses are often more reluctant in new situations if they have multiple riders, have had several owners, or have been with the current owner for just a brief period of time.
“Domestic horses may spend several hours daily in close contact with humans, which can affect horse welfare, physiology, and behavior. 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,” said study lead author Océane Liehrmann, a doctoral student in Biology at the University of Turku.
The researchers recruited 76 privately owned horses from the Turku area and analyzed their reactions to novel objects. In a first experiment, the horses were led to walk on two surfaces which were new to them – a white tarp and a fluffy blanket – while in a second test, they were presented with a fluffy stuffed toy. In both cases, the horses had to interact either with their owner or a stranger.
“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 behaviors in the test situations,” Liehrmann explained.
Moreover, the experiments revealed that horses with shorter relationships with their owners were more reluctant in new situations and seemed more stressed when asked to interact with unfamiliar objects or surfaces. By contrast, those that had at least six to eight years of relationship with their owner were usually very calm in novel situations. Horses older than 17 refused more often to step on the unfamiliar surfaces when led by a stranger, while they easily agreed to when led by their owners.
“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 concluded.
The study is published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.