A popular method of desensitizing foals relies on imprint training in the first hours and days of life. The objective is to enable foals to accept human handling and procedures while forming a social bond with the handler. This cooperation is a positive attribute for improving human-horse interaction through the horse’s life.
A recent Brazilian study sought to evaluate if positive interactions of foals with people are dependent on familiarity with the handler or with a person’s experience in handling a foal [Schmidek, A.; Nogueira, B.; et al. Gently handled foals generalize responses to humans. J Anim Behav Biometeorol (2018) 6:1-5 http://dx.doi.org/10.14269/2318-1265/jabb.v6n1p1-5].
Thirty foals were used in the study with each handler administering daily treatment of the navel for the first two weeks of life. The handler slowly approached each foal at a 45-degree angle to the shoulder, without intense eye contact and using a low, non-commanding voice. Each foal was constrained for a maximum of 10 minutes with a hugging attitude—one arm over the chest and the other around the hock. With any attempt by the foal to move, the handler increased the restraint, then released the foal once it accepted the restraint. Tactile stimulation involved hands on all over the body with increasing intensity in certain areas based on what the foal would tolerate. The last step in the daily routine was to treat the navel with an antiseptic solution.
Four different handlers were used: one that was familiar to the foal and experienced in foal handling; two that were unfamiliar to the foal and had no handling experience; and one that was unfamiliar to the foal but who had handling experience. The foals were scored according to their reactions:
A = foals that walked towards the human or stood still as the human approached
B = foals that did not allow the approach and prevented the tactile stimulation
Further classification of positive or negative was assigned based on how the foal responded to tactile stimulation.
Nearly 68% of the foals accepted the human forced approach. Of these, 60% sought contact with the handler, and 97.5% accepted tactile stimulation. Interestingly, there was no difference in behavior based on familiarity or unfamiliarity of the foal with the handler or based on experience in handling the foal. Rather than discriminating between familiar or unfamiliar people or handling experience, the foals generalized the stimuli they received from the humans.
The researchers concluded: “The adoption of good handling practices in the initial phase of the foal's life favored the establishment of positive bonds with humans.”
The study highlights that desensitization practices not only improve animal welfare, but also improve safety for human interaction with horses undergoing good handling practices at an early age.