Isolated Yearlings Learn Better, Says French Study

When a yearling is separated for a few days from other horses for practical reasons, it's a great opportunity to get in some good quality training with that youngster, according to a new study by French equine behavior researchers.

yearling learning

A yearling explores a new object in the testing area.

Yearling colts and fillies housed in individual stalls over a period of 11 days were easier to train to walk and back up on command than their counterparts housed in group stalls, said Lea Lansade, PhD. A researcher at the laboratory of behavior, neurobiology, and adaptation of the INRA-CNRS (French national agricultural research institution) at Nouzilly, Lansade is the primary author of the study. The yearlings also responded more calmly to new sights and sounds as well as sudden surprises, and they showed fewer signs of separation anxiety (whinnies, trotting, and frequent defecation) during training sessions.

"A few days' separation at this age seems to make the yearlings less emotional, which makes them more attentive to the humans training them," Lansade said. She added that these young horses tended to spend more time watching their handlers than the control group did.

During the 11-day test period, the 12 separated and 13 grouped yearlings were all given daily training sessions starting the second day (minus a two-day break). On the 11th day, the new skills were tested in a novel environment, and the researchers observed their reactions to various new situations and stimuli as well. The isolated group performed consistently better and more serenely than the yearlings living in groups, Lansade said.

"In practice, we suggest that people take advantage of moments of isolation with their yearlings to handle and train them," she said. "This might be when they’re being sold, or under veterinary treatment, or just if the pasture conditions are not ideal."

However, handlers should be cautious not to let the separation continue for too long, she added. "Previous studies have shown that such conditions (separation of yearlings for several weeks or months) can be detrimental to the horse’s behavior, as they can become more aggressive or develop bad habits (stereotypies) and have generally poorer welfare."

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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