Friday, 1 June 2012

Development Of Behaviour In Young Horses

Following my post on the evolution of equine behaviour I am now writing one on the development of behaviour in young horses. I am writing these now as part of my revision but I am going to schedule them to go out every Friday so my blog isn't bombarded with lots of behaviour posts at once! I think there will be about 6 of these posts and this is the 2nd. 

From birth

From birth to adulthood the foal will go through a number of phases in which specific behaviour patterns develop. Behaviour development is due to the interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Some behaviours are innate and built in to the foal, these include standing, nursing, running and neighing. Learned behaviours take longer to develop.

Foals are able to stand and move within a very short period of time. This is due to them needing to suckle and avoid predators. They also have accurate mapping systems from an early age, this allows them to accurately be able to suckle, it is the equivalent to hand-eye coordination in humans. 

Mal-imprinting is a problem seen in foals that have been hand reared. This is when they prefer human company to that of other horses. The first indication of this may be when the foal shows snapping responses to humans. Caution should be taken. 


Play is important for cognitive and physical development. An early view of play was that it provided physical exercise and helped to develop and maintain physical skills. It may improve the physical fitness of the foal. It is especially musculoskeletal development and establishing social skills. Although social interactions with other foals may be observed as early as the first week in foals that have young heardmates, there tends to be an increase in social behaviour during the second and third month of life when the foal enters the socialisation phase.

Play is often thought as of being difficult to define when assessing it in studies. The diversity and complexity of play can make it difficult to produce meaningful definitions of play that acknowledges its origin. Play is widely thought of as a juvenile behaviour but it is seen in adults of all ages. Play is frequently described as the performance of serious adult behaviours in a non serious context.

As a social prey species that places great survival value on cooperative behaviour and one that is highly motivated to play, the horse appears a relatively willing participant in most horse-human activities. However, it is not advisable to play horse games with the horse as it would be dangerous. This is a problem often seen in foals that have been hand reared.

Training from a young age

Optimal behaviour development means encouraging the development of the correct skills at the appropriate time. In the wild this often happens due to an interaction with certain stimuli. In the domestic situation, horses may be deprived of this opportunity to interact and learn from others. 

Specific periods exist when the learning of certain skills is achieved. These are called critical or sensitive periods. An example of this is the post natal period when the foal forms a bond with the mare.

In terms of handling and training the young horse, it is important to realise that there can be different reasons why training may be more effective during particular periods. One reason is related to the development of neurones in the brain and the central nervous system. This has been described in cats and chickens but not yet in horses. A second reason is related to the fact that in terms of habituation to potentially threatening stimuli, desensitisation occurs faster in naive animals than in animals that have already developed fear of the stimuli. The handling is also less risky as they are small and there is therefore more of a chance it will be carried out in a calm and controlled way. It may be that the specific time the training is being carried out is not as important as the training being repeated with certain time intervals over an extended of time. More research is needed in order to gain to full understanding in this area. 


Most of this information on weaning is with regards to developing negative behaviours because when I was researching this topic for an assignment this was what the subject area was about!

Management during weaning is thought to be a key factor in the development of abnormal behaviours in the horse. There are many different theories as to which weaning approach is the best; this has lead to a large number of studies being carried out assessing which may be the best with regards to the horse’s welfare (Davies Morel, 2008). In feral horses weaning takes place around 8-9 months. However, in domestic horses, they are typically weaned between 4 and 6 months. This time difference can lead to problems such as increased amount of stress during weaning (Waran et al, 2007).

Parker et al, (2008) found that foals that were weaned when the mare initiated it had a significantly lower chance of developing abnormal behaviours. Despite this, they did not find that the age foals were weaned had a significant effect on the development of abnormal behaviours. Waters et al (2002) found the weaning technique to be more important than the age the foal was weaned at. 

As the horse evolved as a herd animal living on pasture, it may be detrimental to the foal if it is kept in a stable during weaning, it may cause sensory deprivation. Foals kept in the stable during weaning may not develop in the same way as their natural housed counterparts. Nicol et al (2005) found foals that were barn weaned were more stressed than those weaned in the paddock. 

When looking at the weaning method McCall et al (1985) found that foals show more vocalisation when they are suddenly separated from the dam compared to if this separation has happened gradually. It was also found that gradual methods result in less activity post weaning suggesting that the foal is less agitated compared to those foals that had been weaned abruptly.

There are a lot of factors affecting the development behaviours in young horses. Keeping as close as possible to the natural situation seems to be the best way to ensure correct development.

After looking at weaning in horses, this leads on to my next behaviour themed post which will be on abnormal behaviours in the horse such as stereotypies!

Love Laura

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