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Early-life object exposure with a habituated mother reduces fear reactions in foals

Abstract

Fear reactions in horses are a major cause of horse–human accidents, and identification of effective pathways for reduction in fearfulness can help decreasing the frequency of accidents. For a young mammal, the mother is one of the most salient aspects of its environment, and she can have a strong influence on her offspring’s behaviour. This study investigated whether fearfulness in foals can be reduced through weekly exposure to usually frightening objects with a habituated mother during the first 8 weeks of life. Prior to foaling, mares (N = 22) were habituated to five initially fear-eliciting situations, including exposure to novel stationary and moving objects. At birth, the foals were randomly assigned to either a Demonstration group (N = 11) or a Control group (N = 11). Demonstration mares demonstrated habituation towards the objects to their foals once per week in weeks 1–8 post-partum. Control mares were inside the empty test arena with their foals for the same amount of time. The foals were tested at 8 weeks and 5 months of age in four standardised fear tests. Demonstration foals showed significantly reduced fear responses (behaviour and heart rate) and increased exploratory behaviour at both 8 weeks and 5 months of age. The effect was likely achieved through a combination of maternal transmission and individual learning. It is concluded that fearfulness in foals may be reduced through exposure to frightening objects together with their habituated mother during the first 8 weeks of life.

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Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank the studs and horse owners for participating in this study; Nanna Lysemose Frederiksen and Kristina Leth, for practical help with the experiments; Jens Malmkvist, Aarhus University, for comments on the manuscript. This study was funded by The Independent Research Council | Technology and Production, grant no. 0602-01907B.

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Correspondence to Janne Winther Christensen.

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Christensen, J.W. Early-life object exposure with a habituated mother reduces fear reactions in foals. Anim Cogn 19, 171–179 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-015-0924-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-015-0924-7

Keywords

  • Fearfulness
  • Habituation
  • Horse
  • Maternal behaviour
  • Social transmission
  • Observational learning