New findings could inform horse welfare

New research has taken another step towards developing an understanding of the cognitive processes that inform the practical issue of how, and when, to introduce horses into social groups.

A study, carried out by undergraduate Bioveterinary Science student Rebecca Ward, aimed to investigate the ability of horses to distinguish between the body odour samples of unfamiliar horses.

The findings suggest, for the first time, that horses are able to discriminate between two stimuli derived from body odours over a short period of time.

The results, which have now been published in the journal Animal Cognition, showed a decrease in the time horses spent investigating a certain body odour after repeated presentations – therefore, becoming accustomed to the same odour.

Dr Oliver Burman, from the School of Life Sciences, co-authored the paper with Research Fellow Dr Franck Peron.

He said: “A better understanding of social memory and recognition processes may help us to refine husbandry/management techniques and consequently improve animal welfare. Given that increased social contact between horses is likely to be beneficial in relation to animal welfare there is a need to identify suitable and safe ways to integrate horses together and the use of olfactory cues could be one way to achieve this.

“The results of this study indicate that horses have a social memory that can be based on body odours (lasting for at least 15 minutes), and this may well be a step towards developing an understanding of the cognitive processes that inform the practical issue of how, and when, to introduce horses into social groups.”

Further research is required to investigate how the retention interval and the quality of the sample influence the process and whether the familiarity of odour cues influences resilience of social memory.

The paper ‘Horses (Equus caballus) discriminate body odour cues from conspecifics’ is published in the Journal Animal Cognition DOI 10.1007/s10071-013-0717-9.