Researchers Use GPS to Study Mare and Foal Movement

Researchers Use GPS to Study Mare and Foal Movement

In the early months, foals stayed fairly close to their dams. However, after four months, the foals began to spend significantly more time grazing away from their dams and closer to other foals.

Photo: iStock

Mare and foal behavior research just got techier: In a new study by Japanese researchers, foals and their dams provided precise, objective data about their movement in relationship to one another by wearing lightweight GPS devices on their halters. The results, the researchers said, gave never-before-observed insight into how these pairs evolve in their spatial distance between each other, as well as between them and other herd members.

While visual observation has been useful in the past, the GPS data provide a clear, objective look at where horses go and how they behave, said Fumio Sato, PhD, of the Japan Racing Association’s Hidaka Training and Research Center, in Hokkaido.

For example, in the six mare-foal couples they studied from one to six months after birth, the researchers confirmed that in the early months, the mare-foal distance remained similar to the mare-mare distance and foal-foal distance, he said. However, after four months, the foals began to spend significantly more time grazing away from their dams. And by five to six months, the mare-foal distance was significantly greater than the foal-foal distance. On a practical level, this could provide support for the decision to wean foals at about this age, as they begin to spend more time with their peers, Sato said.

Their research also yielded interesting data about herd dynamics, he added.

“It became clear not only that the GPS units were useful for analyzing the behavior of the Thoroughbred dams and their foals but also for studying the relationship between inter-horse distances and herd size,” Sato said. “In fact, the size of the herd might determine the individual distances of dams and their foals, or vice-versa (the inter-horse distances might determine the herd size) during the first several months, as well as how that distance evolves over time.”

Using GPS technology to study horse herds opens doors for further, objective, and long-term behavior research, Sato and his fellow researchers said.

“Behavioral studies on horses are a very crucial component of equine research for feeding and breeding management,” they stated in their study. “Calculating the distance between GPS units worn on equine head collars is likely to become a very useful tool for obtaining objective values in equine behavioral observations.”

Currently, the group is using this technology to conduct behavioral surveys of foals and yearlings on pasture to observe various feeding management protocols’ effects, Sato said. Keep an eye on TheHorse.com for updates on their studies.

The study, “Application of a wearable GPS unit for examining interindividual distances in a herd of Thoroughbred dams and their foals,” was published in the Journal of Equine Science

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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