The Effect of Training Partners on Social Separation

The Effect of Training Partners on Social Separation

Hartmann's study concluded that it was not less stressful to habituate naive young horses to social separation using a herdmate as a training partner as opposed to alone.

Photo: Elke Hartmann, PhD

Asking a young horse to leave the herd he's grown up is an inevitable but challenging task when training a young horse, as some naive horses rely on herdmates for a feeling of safety and security. Some owners and trainers might use a herdmate to help keep the naive horse calm during training, but is this really the best tactic to take?

Elke Hartmann, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Uppsala), recently undertook a study in which she and colleagues explored a training partner's effect on teaching young horses to accept social separation.

The team used 32 Dutch Warmblood fillies--18 yearlings and 14 two-year-olds--that had no prior experience with social separation (i.e., they'd always lived in herd situations). The horses were split into eight groups of four, were housed on grass pasture 24 hours per day, and received a mixture of hay and straw each day after completing the experimental training sessions.

Prior to the start of the study, the researchers habituated the horses to wearing halters and being led and also to the test arena so a "novel environment" would not influence the test results.

The team then explained the three steps in each training process and that the horses had to meet "a predefined habituation criterion" for each step in the process before they were considered successful and allowed to proceed to the next step.

Each training session lasted for 120 seconds (two minutes) and included one or more of the following steps, during which the horse had to feed from a container for at least 90 seconds to be considered a success:

  • Step 1: A feed container was placed in a stable corridor 8 meters away from the stable entrance (which led to the horse's herdmates). A handler led the horse to the container and remained with the horse.
  • Step 2: A feed container was placed in the center of the indoor arena 15 meters away from the stable entrance. A handler led the horse to the container and remained with the horse.
  • Step 3: A feed container was placed in the center of the indoor arena 15 meters away from the stable entrance. A handler led the horse to the container and left the arena.

"The horses in each group were randomly allocated to two treatments: Two horses of the group were trained singly (termed S1, N=16), and the remaining two horses were trained as a pair (termed P2, N=8)," Hartmann said in the study, adding that if horses of the pair succeeded in the last training step (step 3 described above), each individual horse that made up a pair was trained individually as well (termed P1, N=16).

During the training sessions, researchers monitored each horse's heart rate to determine if they were nervous; the higher the heart rate, the more anxiety the horse was possibly feeling.

The researchers' key findings included:

  • Twenty of 32 horses were successful in Step 3, 12 of which began training in the S1 group and eight of which began training in the P2 group;
  • There was no significant difference in total training sessions needed for S1 horses compared to P1 horses;
  • The total number of sessions for P2 horses did not differ significantly from S1 horses;
  • Average heart rate did not differ significantly between S1 and P1 horses, however there was a tendency for P2 horses to have lower average heart rates than S1 horses; and
  • Average heart rates in P2 horses were significantly lower in horses trained together compared to when the same horses were trained individually (P1).

So what does this all mean?

"This study suggests that it was not less stressful (in terms of heart rate responses) to habituate naive young horses to separation from the group initially as a pair," Hartmann said. "There was a significant increase in heart rate when previously pair-trained horses continued being trained alone.

"This indicates the horses had to relearn being in the training situation in the absence of the companion, which could explain why there was no difference between S1 and P1 horses," she continued. "Our results imply that horses did not benefit from having experienced the test procedures previously in the presence of a companion."

Hartmann noted it's possible that the use of an experienced companion horse (as opposed to another naive companion horse) already habituated to social separation could have beneficial effects on the young naive horse; however, further research is needed to test that hypothesis.

The study, "Training young horses to social separation: Effect of a companion horse on training efficiency," is scheduled to be included in the September issue of the Equine Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, news editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in eventing with her OTTB, Dorado.

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