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Neonatal foal handling

By B. S. Simpson

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Recent interest has focused on the advantage of intensively handling young foals as a means of producing more tractable horses, accustomed to humans and receptive to training. To date, the effect of this intensive handling, dubbed imprint training in the popular literature, is not tested. The present study compares 7 foals handled intensively as neonates with 8 untreated controls. The handling protocol started from 2-8 h after birth and continued daily for a total of 5 days. The protocol consisted of a series of stimuli and experiences that were each repeated until the foal no longer resisted or reacted negatively. Subsequently, foals were tested before weaning, at 4 months of age. Results indicated that handled foals (HF) ranked higher than control foals (CF) in subjective ratings of calmness (P<0.0117) and friendliness (P<0.0001) and in several specific handling tasks (venipuncture P<0.0220; placing in stock P<0.0128). Although, in approach tests all foals but one allowed approach of a person to 4 m, significantly more HF approached the person than CF (P<0.0080). In stimulus tests, foals were presented specific stimuli to which they were tested as neonates. Two of 8 CF were too unruly and dangerous to test. Of foals that could be tested, CF required significantly more time to hook-up a heart rate monitor (P<0.0055). Split-plot analysis indicated that HF had lower heart rates to initial left-sided stimuli, presented first, than CF (P<0.0421). In response to right-sided stimuli, heart rate scores of CF were not significantly different from HF (P<0.2259), suggesting reduced reactivity over time due to a learning effect. Behavioural responses to specific stimuli did not differ between CF and HF, suggesting that neonatal handling has a general rather than specific effect on subsequent behaviour. Cortisol concentrations were measured before and after testing and the difference calculated. All foals had higher post-testing levels than pre-testing levels. There was a significant difference between HF and CF, indicating greater reactivity among the CF (P<0.050). In general, the results indicated that foals handled as neonates were more tractable and less reactive. Specific neonatal handling tasks, such as sticking a finger up the foal's nose or patting the bottom of the foot, seemed to have no beneficial effect on related tasks such as passing a nasogastric tube or tapping with a farrier's hammer at 4 months of age. Mechanisms for the observed effect of neonatal handling require further investigation.

Date 2002
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 78
Issue 2/4
Pages 303-317
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/S0168-1591(02)00107-7
Language English
Author Address The Veterinary Behavior Clinic, 6045 US Highway 1 North, Southern Pines, NC 28387-8614, USA.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal physiology
  3. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  4. Blood
  5. Cortisol
  6. Foals
  7. Heart rate
  8. Horses
  9. Hydrocortisone
  10. Imprinting
  11. Mammals
  12. newborn animals
  13. peer-reviewed
  14. responses
  15. stimuli
  1. peer-reviewed