“We were really surprised to see such a significant difference in the amount of biting these young foals did according to how often they got days off,” said Hayley Randle, PhD, of Charles Sturt University’s School of Animal and Veterinary Science, in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.
“Biting in young foals is a behavioral sign of stress,” she explained. “These foals were only training less than half an hour a day, but by the fourth day in a row many were biting the handlers, some frequently. Meanwhile, foals of the same age that got a one-day break after the second training day were much less likely to bite, even on the fourth day of actual training.”
Randle presented the work of her colleague, Jaymie Loy, BSc, of Charles Sturt University, during the 15th annual International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held Aug. 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The team worked with foal trainers in New Zealand who practice evidence-based foundation training using negative reinforcement.
The group trained 20 Thoroughbred foals to move forward and stop in response to halter pressure. All the young horses worked for a total of six or seven days, for up to 25 minutes each day, depending on their progress during each session. However, half the foals had one-day breaks between two days of training (Days 3 and 6), whereas the other half had a single, two-day break after the first four days in a row of training.
The researchers found that regardless of the schedule, all foals learned at about the same rate and had the same level of recall of what they’d learned before, Randle said. Where the researchers saw a difference, though, was in the youngest foals’ behavior. Specifically, foals under 8 weeks of age showed a remarkable increase in biting during the fourth consecutive day of training.
“If we want to establish a positive horse-human relationship from the start, we need to be considering the cognitive abilities and the limitations when working with young horses and handle them appropriately,” Loy said in a subsequent interview. “The foals in our study that were younger than 8 weeks of age clearly showed signs of stress, as seen through the biting, by having several days of training in a row.”
Study foals that were older than 8 weeks did not show an increase in biting behavior, even on the fourth consecutive day of training, she added. It seemed to be a phenomenon of younger foals in this small study population, she said.
“We recommend planning a day off within the first four days of training young foals in order to decrease potential stress-related behaviors,” said Randle.