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Longitudinal study on human-related behaviour in horses—Can horses (Equus caballus) be de-domesticated?

Górecka-Bruzda, Aleksandra, Jaworski, Zbigniew, Suwała, Mira, Boroń, Marlena, Ogłuszka, Magdalena, Earley, Bernadette, Sobczyńska, Magdalena
Applied animal behaviour science 2017 v.195 pp. 50-59
Polish Konik, ancestry, animal behavior, fearfulness, flight, foaling, foals, heart rate, humans, legs, longitudinal studies, natural selection, weaning
In the present study, we hypothesise that persistent avoidance of human would confirm de-domestication process in semi-feral horses.Fifty-three Konik polski horses (stable-born: SB, N1=27 and forest-born: FB, N2=26), additionally handled for 5 or 15days after weaning, were evaluated. Human (stationary, approaching and touching the foals when 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18 months old) and handling (approaching, leg-lifting, leading, and handling the foals when startled at 12 and 18 months old) tests were conducted. During handling test heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (RMSSD) were measured.Compared to FB foals, a greater number of SB foals approached (P<0.05) and touched (P<0.05) the experimenter when tested at 6, 9, 15 and 18 months old. The latency to approach the experimenter and flight distance were longer in FB foals than in SB foals (P<0.01). FB foals withdraw more from approaching human as compared to SB foals (P<0.05) and this response was consistent across ages in the human and handling tests.The time to raise the fore legs was not different between groups at both tested ages, however FB foals slightly decreased their performance with time (P<0.01). They also performed less well than SBs in a hand-leading task at 12 months old (P<0.01) while they improved their performance when older (P<0.01). SB foals when older were easier than FB horses to halt (P<0.05). When tested at 12 and 18 months old FB foals were physiologically more aroused than SB foals (greater mean HR, P<0.01, HRmax, P<0.01 and lower RMSSD P<0.01). Extensively handled foals presented greater HR than the control group (P<0.05). However, FB and SB groups did not differ in overall fearfulness, since they reacted similarly to a startling novel object, but, when frightened stable foals showed better manageability to calm down when older. It is concluded that de-domestication is very easy to induce in horses only by the relaxation of every-day contact with humans. This suggests that Konik horses underwent little genetic selection for fearfulness, but like their wild ancestors, adapt relatively easy to man-made conditions and are capable of being domesticated.