A new study from Denmark suggests that foals take cues from their mothers when reacting to potentially frightening stimuli.
Using desensitization techniques, Aarhaus University researchers trained 22 pregnant mares to respond calmly to five different fear-inducing situations, such as having a plastic bag wiped over their bodies or standing next to an opening umbrella. After the mares foaled, their offspring were divided into two groups: Half of the youngsters watched as their dams were exposed to the fear-inducing situations once a week for the first eight weeks of their lives. The remaining foals watched their dams being handled for the same amount of time, but without encountering the stimuli.
Three months later, the foals were exposed to the same fear-inducing stimuli that their dams had encountered, along with entirely new potentially frightening objects.
The researchers report that the youngsters who had observed their dams face scary situations calmly were less likely to be frightened than foals who had not. What’s more, these foals were also likely to exhibit more exploratory behaviors.
The researchers conclude that this “effect was likely achieved through a combination of maternal transmission and individual learning.”
Reference: “Early-life object exposure with a habituated mother reduces fear reactions in foals,” Animal Cognition, September 2015