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Early handling influence on
foal behaviour.
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Does handling newborn foals make them more manageable, calmer and improve their learning ability?

Dr Léa Lansade and others working in the Laboratory of Animal Behaviour at the National Institute for Agricultural Research, in Tours, France, have been investigating the effect of early handling on the subsequent behaviour of foals. Their findings were reported in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

They used 26 Welsh pony foals, which had all been born outside without human interference.

Half of the foals were handled daily until they were two weeks old. Handling consisted of fitting a halter, patting the foal all over its body, picking up all the feet and leading the foal for 40m. A white plastic bag was shaken in front of the foal. For ease of management each of these foals was penned individually with its mother during the day and turned out to pasture at night. The other foals were not handled and were kept at pasture where they had little human contact.

To assess the effect of the handling the researchers conducted a series of behavioural tests the first being done when the foals were 16 days old, two days after the end of the handling. Further tests were performed three, six and twelve months after the end of the handling period.

They found that although there was a difference in behaviour between the handled and unhandled group two days after the end of the handling period, any effects were short lived.

Two days after the end of handling period, they assessed the response to various tests. They recorded the time need to fit a halter and to pick up the feet. They measured the "walk ratio" - an indication of how much resistance the foal showed to being led over 40 metres. A foal that was tugging on the halter all the time would have a walk ratio of 1. Its walk ratio would be lower if it showed less resistance. They also recorded the number of defensive reactions the foal showed during the procedure, and its reaction to surprise events.

They found that handled foals were significantly easier to handle than the unhandled ones. Handled foals took less time to have a halter fitted and have their feet picked up. They showed a lower walk ratio and fewer defensive reactions.

Handled foals showed less reaction to the surprise event that they had previously experienced (the white plastic bag.) But both handled and unhandled foals reacted similarly to a previously unknown surprise - such as suddenly placing a saddle cloth and circingle on the foal's back and taking them away again. So early handling did not seem to make the foals generally less fearful.

Three months later, the handled foals were still slightly easier to handle. The foals took less time to fit a halter and when walked spent significantly less time resisting the halter. But all other tests showed no difference between the groups.

Additional tests were carried out when the foals were 6 and 12 months old to assess their reaction to being isolated from other foals, and how they reacted to the presence of an unknown human and a novel object. The researchers found no significant difference in response between the two groups of foals.

Finally, when the foals were 14 months old, the researchers tested their learning ability. In one test of discriminative learning foals had to learn to choose between two buckets according to their colour to receive a reward (food). A second test assessed the foals` spatial learning ability. They had to learn to select one of eight buckets, all the same colour, according to its position. In neither test was there any difference in response between the foals that had been handled regularly after birth and those that had not.

Dr Lansade suggests that as handling newborn foals only has a temporary effect, the handling procedure needs to be repeated regularly until the horse is broken in.

Reference: Effects of neonatal handling on subsequent manageability, reactivity and learning ability of foals. Léa Lansade, Magali Bertrand, Marie-France Bouissou. Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2005) 92, 143 - 158.
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