sexta-feira, janeiro 20, 2006

Controlled Study of Early Handling and Training of Icelandic Foals

Controlled Study of Early Handling and Training of Icelandic Foals
Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir1 and Víkingur Gunnarsson2
1Iceland University of Education, Stakkahlid, 105 Reykjavik, Iceland
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2Hólar Agricultural College, Skagafjördur, Iceland
Many scientists agree that information on the learning abilities of horses should be used in developing training methods (Fiske and Potter, 1979; Mader and Price, 1980; McCall, 1990) but nevertheless research where such knowledge is put to the test is limited (Flannery, 1997). Foals that are handled continuously between 4 and 22 months of age were quicker learners and were easier to train than those that got less handling (Fiske and Potter, 1979). The handling involved being lead, brushed, and acclimated to restraint. In some studies more relaxed foals learned more and were easier to train later on than stressed foals (Fiske and Potter, 1979; Heird et al, 1986) while no such correlation was found in another study (Mader and Price 1980). It is commonly believed, and has been established with tests, that younger horses are quicker-learners than mature (Mader and Price, 1980; Houpt, 1982), but the question remains to be answered if a certain age is better than another and if so, if the optimum time differs between breeds.
The idea of imprint training (Miller, 2000) is controversial but seems to be popular in the USA. Miller found that foals that had been treated by veterinarians at birth were easier to handle later on. He associated this with what Konrad Lorenz called imprint learning (1937), which involved irreversible learning taking place during a sensitive period early in life. Miller claims that the idea has been tested scientifically but no such papers are covered by Wed of Science. To our knowledge one systematic research has been carried out whose results will be published this year (Jennifer Williams, personal communication). Miller (2000) claims that it is very important to stroke and handle the foals quickly after birth (hence the reference to the imprinting concept) and desensitize them to touch and other interventions. A study by Mal et al (1994) did not support the claim that very young foals are more sensitive to treatment than older foals. It is possible that what we are witnessing when the foals seem relaxed after stroking is not “imprinting” but “learned helplessness”.
In Iceland where mares give birth out in the field within the herd (usually herds of mares, sub-adults and sometimes geldings) it is customary not to disturb the mare and foal for the first hours of the foal’s life. That fact and the custom in many places to let the foals stay with their dams within large groups in the wilderness from 1-2 months of age till autumn, would mean that continuous handling would not have a practical value for most Icelandic horse owners. We wanted to test the idea that early handling and training of foals should calm the foals considerably and teach them valuable lessons, which would make training later on easier.
Subjects. Twenty-two foals, 10 colts and 12 fillies, from Holaskóli (Holar Agricultural College) and 3 farms in Skagafjördur, Iceland, were treated 4 times. In the control group there were equal number of foals from the same farms, 9 colts and 13 fillies. All the mares and the foals were kept in fields close to the farms with many other horses. During the treatments and the tests the dam was caught in an enclosure and taken under halter to a barn with the foal following. The mare was kept standing close to the foal (1-3 m) and attended to (given silage /stroked) if it was stressed.
Treatments. The first treatment which involved rubbing the foal all over its body while being held lying down as recommended by Miller (2000) and inserting the finger into the mouth and the ears (but not as often nor as fast as Miller does), was carried out within the first 24 hours of the foal’s life. The second treatment which involved repeating the first one but this time the foal was standing, was done 1, 2, 3 or 4 (1 foal) days later. The foal was held and given a firm push at the both ends until it stepped backwards and forward. Then it was haltered and the head pulled gently to both sides a few times. The third treatment was done 1, 2, 3 or 4 (2 foals) days later. The second treatment was repeated and in addition the foal was lead. A body rope was put around the foal in such a way that by lifting the head the rope got tight around the hindquarter. The foal was encouraged to follow its dam the first round but then it was lead away from the dam. The fourth treatment was carried out 4, 5, 6 or 7 days later and involved repeating the third one. The reactions of the foals were noted and the time it took to carry out the different parts of the treatments. The behaviour of the dams was also noted. The foals were handled between 15th of May and the 20th of June 2000.
Test. Between the 10th and the 13th of October 2000 all handled and control foals were tested by the same person (experimenter) who had not been involved in the treatments in the spring and remained blind to group assignments. An assistant helped. All the foals had been in the mountains during the summer. During the test procedures, the dam was always within reach. 16-20 m2 indoor area was used as a test area in all the farms. The time it took to catch the foal and hold it still was taken, then it was haltered, legs lifted and hoofs hammered, ears, gums, belly and area underneath the tail stroked, the response to 1-3 pushes to the front and the hindquarters scored and also the response to the lead to left and right and how well it followed. The experimenter graded foal on each test. The time it took to carry out all the tests was measured and finally the foal was graded (on scale 1-5) on overall compliance.
Video recordings. The behaviour of the foals during the test was classified and measured (frequencies and time). The program Observer (produced at Noldus, Wageningen, Netherlands) was used in the recording and analyses. The behaviour classes used were: walk, run, flee (run fast), stand still, shake head, pull against the lead by standing, fall on the ground, and strongly resist.
Temperament of the dams. The owners of the mares answered a questionnaire rating on the scale 1- 3 or 4 each of the following: ease of training, ease of handling, ease of approach, and general level of nervousness.
Statistical analyses. Chi square tests were used to compare groups (early handling/control) in the tests where the distributions pointed towards significant differences. Mann –Whitney U tests and t- tests were carried out to compare time measurements and frequencies. Correlation tests were carried out on performance (grades) in spring and autumn tests and on foal resistance characteristics and temperament features of the dam. Finally, stepwise regression was carried out on the resistance score as a dependent variable and treatment and the four temperament characteristics of the dams as independent variables.
The early handled foals were in general not calmer than the control foals when being rubbed in the autumn and were similarly difficult to catch in the beginning of the test. There was some indication that foals in the early handled foals scored better than the control foals in three tests, i.e. in the response to the lead to the left and right and to pushing on the breast and also in the final grade. However, in no case was the difference significant. Also, in no case was there a significant correlation between the grade the foal got in the 4th treatment in the spring and the grade in the autumn test.
The foals differed in difficulty being caught, haltered and lead. The analyses from the video recording revealed that the resistance of control foals was greater than that of early handled foals, measured as total time (p<0.01) and frequencies of strong resistance (p<0.02). There was no difference between the sexes.
Also, in the experimental group, the strength of foal resistance to handling was correlated with the temperament scores of the dam in 3 of the 4 attributes tested (ease of training: r = - 0.510, p<0.02; ease of handling: r = -0.556, p<0.01; general level of nervousness: r = 0.483, p<0.03). In the control group, no significant correlations were found in comparable tests.
In the stepwise regression analyses two variables explained a significant portion of the variation in the dependent variable (strong resistance): the treatment ( F = 10.19, p< 0.01) and ease of handling of the dam (F = 4.14, p<0.05).
These results suggest that the 22 foals in the experiment did not learn significantly by being handled, haltered, and lead during the first 2 weeks of their life. Some foals had learned some of the tasks and appeared to retain compliance later, but due to high individual variation the overall differences between early handled and control were not significant. However, early handled foals were calmer and on average resisted less when tested 3 months later compared to control foals. When analysed in detail, it became clear that the difference is due to the effect the whole treatment had on foals whose dam’s were in general easy to handle. This is not surprising and supports research and the common knowledge that it takes more time to work with more stressed horses (Fiske and Potter, 1979).
Although we handled the foals in a gentler manner than recommended in Robert M. Miller’s video they were nevertheless forced to lie down and restrained throughout the treatment. On the basis of our results we conclude that such a forced early handling should not to be recommended for Icelandic foals. That is because foals whose dams are difficult to handle do get stressed and they did not learn to lead. Also, the foals that had learned to be more relaxed would probably have learned that through gentler handling. Many trainers do in fact recommend early handling procedures that are more pleasing for the foals and which aim to form a bond between the foal and the trainer built on trust (Tellington-Jones, 1998; Líndal, 2001).
We thank Stefán Már Stefánsson who analysed some of the data and wrote the first report of this study with us and kept all records. He, Gudrún Magnúsdóttir, Andrés Ívarsson and Snorri Sigurdsson helped with the experiment in the spring, and the autumn test was done by Valberg Sigurdsson with Stefán, and us assisting. The farmers at Hofstadasel, Keldudalur and Vatnsleysa provided facilities and foals and helped in many ways, as did the staff at Holar. Holar Agricultural College and Iceland University of Education supported the study.
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