A new study published this month from the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science demonstrated what many of horse people have long suspected – that horses prefer having their “own person.” The study from Finland sought to explore how horses react to strange objects when handled by their owner or an unfamiliar person. The results indicate that horses do in fact feel more comfortable and confident when they’ve had less than two owners (including the breeder) compared to horses who have been bought and sold multiple times.
Call it the “Black Beauty” syndrome, where in the classic book readers follow the heartbreaking ordeal of one horse as he is sold from person to person with varying degrees of cruelty before ending up back in his original owners’ hands. It turns out, according to the study, that Anna Sewell’s fictional tale wasn’t far off the mark.
The Finnish study used 76 horses, and the length of time they were owned by one person ranged from six months to 15 years. The amount of times horses exchanged hands throughout their lives were put into two groups: horses still owned by their breeder or bought directly from the breeder, and horses sold more than once. As for familiar handlers, this was also broken down by horses that had been handled by one person and those handled by others. The study was completed in spring of 2021 with the tasks performed in the stables where the horses lived in Southern Finland.
The study involved two “novel object” tasks with the horses. The first one was having the horse walk on an unfamiliar surface, a fluffy blue blanket and a white tarp. The horses were led by a familiar person and an unfamiliar person. The second test involved the horse being approached with and touched by an unfamiliar object; the researchers used a stuffed toy, a rainbow-coloured narwal. During this test the horses were led into an arena and set free and were given one minute to interact with the stuffed animal, after which the handler would try and approach the horse and touch it with the toy.
“We observed that having multiple regular handlers negatively affected the horse reluctance towards novel surfaces and novel object,” the study authors wrote. “In horses used to be handled by multiple persons, 68% were showed reluctant behaviours towards the novel surfaces while 75% of the horses handled by only one person did not show reluctant behaviours.”
The findings were similar with the toy touch test, where 26% of the horses with multiple regular handlers refused to be touched with a novel object while only 13% of the horses with only one regular handler refused to be touched with the object. “The relationship length between the horse and the familiar handler decreased the horse reluctance towards the novel surfaces and the novel object,” the study states. “The longer the relationship the less reluctant were the horses. Horses sold more than once were also more reluctant to the novel object. These horses had higher chances to refuse to be touched with the novel object than the horses still owned by their breeder or their first buyer.”
The researchers also found that 87% of older horses (over the age of 18) were more willing to walk on the strange surfaces when led by a familiar person as opposed to a stranger.
Interestingly, how long the relationship was between handler and horse had a major impact on the animal’s reluctance towards the stuffed toy. “We can summarize by saying that after eight years of relationship horses had significantly more chances to be touched with the novel object without showing reluctant behaviours,” the author’s state.
So, what’s the takeaway? “Our findings suggest that a positive horse-human relationship may take time to develop as it is shaped by multiple factors involving the horse’s previous interactions and events with humans as well as repeated interactions that affect the everyday life of the horse,” the study concludes. “The results of this study contribute much-needed knowledge on human-animal relationships which should be considered when investigating animal welfare.”
The details of the test and results can be found here.