Horses are prey animals by nature and have several natural enemies. Fortunately, our domestic horses have little to do with this. They are often securely fenced and in some countries these predators do not even exist. Still, researchers were curious whether horses nevertheless recognize and respond to the sounds of certain predators. Is the fear of predators naturally present?
This study looked at the emotional response of Arabian and Konik horses to the sounds of an Arabian panther and a grey wolf. With the idea that the ancestors of the Arabs would be known with the panther and ancestors of the Konik horses lived together with the wolf. As an extra check, the sound of the jackal was also introduced, a predator that does not naturally hunt equines.
Two groups were formed: 10 Arabians and 10 Konik horses. The horses never came into contact with the predators used in the study beforehand. Each group was exposed to sounds of one predator species daily for 5 minutes in the meadow for 18 days. The sounds were alternated so that each group heard all three types. Meanwhile, heart rate variability (HRV) was measured. The HRV tells you how much time there is between each heartbeat, unlike your heart rate (HR) which tells you how many times your heart beats per minute. The HRV can be used as an indicator of stress. Overall, you can say: at a low HRV the fight-flight system is more active and at a high HRV the rest-relax system is more active.
And guess what? The horses experienced the sounds as stressful or reacted neutrally, depending on the animal they heard. Indeed, it turned out that the Arabian horses reacted more strongly to the growl of the Arabian panther than the Koniks. And the Konik horses, on the other hand, responded more to the wolf’s howling than the Arabs. And the sound of the jackal? The horses barely reacted to that. So these results could indicate some kind of genetic memory. Even though the horses aren’t familiar with the animals behind the noise, they know it’s smart to see it as a threat and respond to it. A beautiful survival gift from their ancestors!
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