Although there is a tremendous amount of behavioural research within the academic field, not a lot of it filters through to us owners to use in a practical way. Without this scientifically proven knowledge helping us to understand how our horses develop their behaviour appropriately, we are left to rely on magazines and common belief, benefitting neither us nor our horses in the long term.
Looking at local classified adverts I am extremely concerned about the foals that are offered for sale, now finding them ‘weaned and ready to go’ as young as three months. So here is a bit of information about weaning and the early experiences of the domestic horse to help you understand how your horse may develop behavioural problems from foal to adulthood.
Research into how humans learn initially began on animals being tested, from the mouse to the cat, the horse, pig, monkey and so on. Through these studies, evidence shows that we all start learning from within the womb right through to death, building either positive or negative associations between themselves and the objects, people or situations that they come across.
In the wild the young horse will not leave its mother until it has developed a full understanding of ‘how to be a horse’ and built up enough confidence to feel safe with the change into another part of the herd. This will not be until they are 2-3 years of age through an extremely gradual process.
With this new understanding we can therefore see how much stress we are putting on a foal of three months, tearing him from his dam, the safety figure, and flooding him with a range of new horses, people, routines, and so many more sights, sounds, tastes and smells.
Just because an animal is physically capable of living without protection does not mean it is mentally able to cope under such pressure, he is prone to colic and developing stable vices, severely lacking in social skills, and not open to learning as much as he would be able to.
Although there is much more to this area of equine behaviour, the underlying mechanisms within the body and indeed welfare, I hope that this is enough to start your new thinking through the eyes of your horses of any age. Remember that over 80% of domestic horses are weaned too soon, memories of which are held for life.
You may wish to challenge and query what I say which is great, start thinking and questioning all that you hear…”Does that make sense”… I am always happy to provide references to the original studies for all I write, just ask me.