Pereira-Figueiredo, I., Costa, H., Carro, J. et al. 2017. Behavioural changes induced by handling at different timeframes in Lusitano yearling horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 196, 36-43.
Recent interest has focused on the advantage of intensely handling young horses, as a good tool for improving emotional reactivity and thence trainability. Its effectiveness remains controversial, suggesting it might depend on the right timeframe to do so. The present study aimed to evaluate the effects of 3-handling sessions in foals, during eventual optimal periods − the day of birth (2-3h after it) and the day after weaning − to be compared to handling in an unspecific period (at 50±7days old), or no handling. Lusitano breed foals (n=50) were divided into five experimental groups with three being submitted to handling (consisting in desensitization, socialization and sensitization): at birth (Imp-H), at weaning (Wean-H), or at 50±7days old (Ex-H); and two not-handled groups: one not-handled and submitted to a 4-sessions training schedule (Not-H); and another left undisturbed (Control) until the end of the study (that finished when the foals reached 12±1 months old). Training, consisted in four 12-min sessions, where foals were taught to be lead-in-hand finishing with exhibition of trot. Handling effects, regarding skills to face new situations and environments in the presence of and on human demands, were evaluated twice: two months after weaning, just before starting the training; and one month after it ended, when they were submitted to a final performance test. Previous to training, handling effects were not found in the foals’ behavioural responses when facing a motionless person. When approached, differences were shown: animals handled at birth or at weaning displayed less fearfulness, showed less locomotor activity and tolerated a closer approach, when compared to Controls. Moreover, the Wean-H foals were those that learned faster at training and the only group that passed all aims at the final test; the Imp-H foals were the less reactive, but did not learn better than Ex-H foals and were more troublesome when trained. In summary, our data suggest that 3-handling sessions in young horses are enough to act on human-animals’ relationship, learning performance and, and may be improved if performed in the specific period of weaning.