Obstacle training for mother and foal: a gap in the market?

Obstacle training can make a horse more confident and help them deal with stress. How handy would it be if the foal could watch their dam and become more confident and less anxious as a result? Danish researchers were curious if this could work and have observed foals who have seen their dams deal with spooky objects and situations.


In Denmark, 22 mares were examined with their foal. The ability to pass on habituation to their foal was examined. Habituation is the ability of a horse to become accustomed to an spooky/scary object, so that they no longer react fearfully. 

Prior to giving birth, the mares were already habituated to five different scary objects or situations such as an open umbrella, crossing a tarp or rubbing the body with a plastic bag. After foaling, half of the mares were exposed to the same five situations once a week (for eight weeks), with the foals by their side. The foals were not examined and were allowed to roam freely. The other half of the mares and foals were not exposed to the scary objects and situations.


After the eight weeks, the researchers examined all foals with four standardized anxiety tests, some tests had already been used in the mares’ habituation and some were completely new objects or situations. The team observed the foals’ behaviour and their heart rate. In general, foals who had seen their dams deal with scary situations were much less anxious during the tests. Even rubbing the plastic bag, something that almost every horse finds scary, seemed easily accepted by the foals in the experiment group.


After the study was completed, all mares and foals were allowed to graze for three months, without any experimentation. After five months, the foals’ anxiety levels were re-examined. Once again, the researchers saw that the foals who had seen their dams interact with scary objects and situations were less anxious during the tests, even months later.


Indeed, it seems possible to reduce a foal’s anxiety with the help of the mare. The foals from the experimental group benefited not only from social learning (looking at how their dams accepted the objects), but also from individual discovery. The foals were allowed to move freely during the habituation sessions with their mothers, often exploring the objects on their own, out of curiosity. A great way to introduce this to any foal! 


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