Parameters for the Analysis of Social Bonds in Horses
Abstract: Social bond analysis is of major importance for the evaluation of social relationships in group housed horses. However, in equine behaviour literature, studies on social bond analysis are inconsistent. Mutual grooming (horses standing side by side and gently nipping, nuzzling, or rubbing each other), affiliative approaches (horses approaching each other and staying within one body length), and measurements of spatial proximity (horses standing with body contact or within two horse-lengths) are commonly used. In the present study, we assessed which of the three parameters is most suitable for social bond analysis in horses, and whether social bonds are affected by individual and group factors. We observed social behaviour and spatial proximity in 145 feral horses, five groups of Przewalski’s horses (N = 36), and six groups of feral horses (N = 109) for 15 h per group, on three days within one week. We found grooming, friendly approaches, and spatial proximity to be robust parameters, as their correlation was affected only by the animals’ sex (GLMM: N = 145, SE = 0.001, t = −2.7, p = 0.008) and the group size (GLMM: N = 145, SE < 0.001, t = 4.255, p < 0.001), but not by the horse breed, the aggression ratio, the social rank, the group, the group composition, and the individuals themselves. Our results show a trend for a correspondence between all three parameters (GLMM: N = 145, SE = 0.004, t = 1.95, p = 0.053), a strong correspondence between mutual grooming and friendly approaches (GLMM: N = 145, SE = 0.021, t = 3.922, p < 0.001), and a weak correspondence between mutual grooming and spatial proximity (GLMM: N = 145, SE = 0.04, t = 1.15, p = 0.25). We therefore suggest either using a combination of the proactive behaviour counts mutual grooming and friendly approaches, or using measurements of close spatial proximity, for the analysis of social bonds in horses within a limited time frame.
As more and more horses are being kept in group housing, it is important to take the horses’ likes and dislikes of other group members (their social bonds) into account to ensure the animals’ well-being and minimise aggressive encounters between group members. Methods for the analysis of social bonds need to be improved and integrated into horse welfare protocols. We observed social behaviour and spatial proximity in 145 feral horses, comprising five groups of Przewalski’s horses and six groups of feral horses. We found that 15 h of observation per group provided robust and reliable data for the analysis of social bonds. Either a combination of counts of friendly approaches and mutual grooming between pairs of horses, or the analysis of the horses’ nearest neighbors through measurements of the animals spatial proximity, are suitable ways of gaining insight into the horses’ social relationships.
a) mutual grooming, b) friendly approach, c) spatial proximity