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Horses need to keep in touch

Horses need physical contact just like we do. The question is which form of physical contact they prefer.

Looking at each other is not enough. Sniffing, nuzzling and rubbing are also needed – not least if you are a horse. Research at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences (DJF) at the University of Aarhus has revealed that horses have a clear need of physical contact. Now researchers have started studying which form of physical contact horses favour.

In the preliminary stages of the study the horses were given the chance to greet another horse on the other side of some bars or a dividing wall, or by entering a room with another horse in it. The alternative was to go back to their box where they could see but not touch the neighbouring horse.

- The horses’ need for contact with another horse – irrespective of how it was done – was so pronounced that it was impossible for us in that study to distinguish which form of contact the horses preferred, says scientist Eva Søndergaard, who is in charge of the new project.

The second stage of the experiment is therefore to investigate, which form of contact horses prefer using a press button method. The method, which is used on other livestock such as heifers, calves and pigs, involves giving the animals a task to find out how hard they are prepared to work to achieve a certain result. With this method it is also possible to distinguish between an actual need and something that would just be nice to have, but is not absolutely essential.

Pressing the right buttons

The work for the horses involves pressing a button with the nose. The reward is contact with another horse in a certain way. By counting how many times the horses press the buttons, it is possible to measure the form of contact they are prepared to work the hardest for.

Denmark has the highest number of horses per capita in Europe. It is therefore natural that we carry out research into horse behaviour. DJF has a very important role to play in providing policy advice, for example in relation to the preparation of new regulations and notifications for horse owners. This means that the research results can be directly applied.

- A draft bill by the Ministry of Justice, which will be presented by the government at some point in the future, specifies that keepers of horses should have at least two horses. This means that they will recommend that horses have social contact. But so far it has not been defined what this social contact should be and there is no minimum requirement set out. This is where our results can come in useful, says Eva Søndergaard.

For further information please contact:
Scientist Eva Søndergaard, Dept. of Animal Health, Welfare and Nutrition, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, University of Aarhus, e-mail: info@agrsci.org


Thursday 01 March 2007 | Communication Unit