In the life of a domestic horse, social isolation, confinement and unvaried food are commonplace. These conditions can induce welfare and behavioral issues. We tested whether an enrichment protocol 1- could improve welfare , have an impact 2- on fearfulness and 3- on human relationships. Nineteen 10-month old Welsh ponies lived during five weeks in a standard (N=9) or enriched environment (N=10). In the standard environment, horses lived in individual stables with wood shaving bedding. They were fed concentrated pellets and were left outside in individual paddocks thrice per week. In the enriched environment, horses lived in individual stables with straw bedding during the day and by groups on a pasture during the night. Enrichment consisted in fractionating and delivering varied food all day long, offering social contacts, large stables and sensory stimulations (e.g., music, objects). The behavior of the horses was recorded in the stable. We found many indications of welfare improvement in enriched conditions from the 1st to the 5th week. On the 5th week, enriched horses expressed less aberrant behavior, alert postures, ears pointed backwards and more lateral sleeping posture. At the end of the five weeks, temperament tests showed that enriched yearlings were less fearful and closer to humans (e.g., glances at an unknown object, latency to return eating after a sudden event, sniffing and nibbling a passive human). Enriched horses also expressed less defensive behavior towards humans during manipulation (e.g., escape, biting, head-butt). Such an enrichment program could be recommended in breeding to improve welfare, horse-human relationships, and decrease fearfulness.
Most riding masters from the 18th and early 19th century who left a written heritage had understood intuitively the laws of classical and operant conditioning as determined scientifically in the 20th century. Key principles of academic riding, often ignored by modern coercive dressage, can be “translated” and explained in scientific terms. Abiding by these principles should improve welfare. Independence of aids: The rider should have maximal control of the stimuli (= aids) given. When giving a particular stimulus, it should not be accompanied by others, at least in the beginning of schooling. Better balance means more independent hand, leg and seat aids. This principle originates from two phenomena: discrimination of stimuli and overshadowing. Discretion of aids: Reacting to stimuli as weak as possible contributes to lightness. Two mechanisms are used to reach that goal: generalization and second order conditioning. “Descente de mains”, “descente de jambes”: Stop aids when the horse is in the required attitude or pace. This requires sufficient sensitivity to detect light changes. Not applying this principle results in habituation and killing of impulsion, confusion (uncertainty concerning the adequate response) and impossibility to use negative reward. Legs without hands, hands without legs: Experimental neuroses can be elicited through contradictory signals or motivations. Riders often do so. Legs usually mean “forward, speed up”, rein pressure “stop, slow down”. Simultaneous presentation represents conflicting signals. Using drawing reins as a routine go against this principle.
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