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Flauger, B. (2011). The introduction of horses into new social groups with special regard to their stress level. Ph.D. thesis, , .
Abstract: Horses are a highly social species living in complex social systems which should require them to memorise and generalise social experiences and distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar conspecifics. In the main part of my thesis I concentrated on the specific conflict situation of a horse being introduced into a new social group, and investigated its behaviour and stress level. Horses were either introduced (1) immediately, (2) after an observation period, or (3) together with an integration horse after an observation period. Additionally, in the second part of my thesis I arranged several experiments to elaborate additional aspects which could affect the behaviour of horses during introductions. In this study I could describe a simplified method for measuring stress through the analysis of faecal GCMs in horses. An enzyme immunoassay (EIA) for 11-oxoaetiocholanolone using 11-oxoaetiocholanolone-17-CMO: BSA (3?,11-oxo-A EIA) as antigen showed high amounts of immunoreactive substances. The new assay increases the accuracy of the test and lowers the expenses per sample; also storing of samples at room temperature after collection is less critical. This is a big advantage both in the field of wildlife management of equids and in the field of equestrian sports (chapter 1). Comparing the different introduction techniques, the introduction with an integration horse led to significantly less total interactions and lower levels of aggression than the introduction of single horses, both immediately and after several days of observing the new group. Additionally, by observing the behaviour of the horses during everyday sociality I could develop a formula describing the interrelationship between expected aggression level and enclosure size per horse. The curve takes an exponential shape. Starting from a space allowance of 300 m2 and more per horse, the amount of aggressions per hour approaches zero. For the reduction of aggression levels and injury risks in socially kept horses I recommend an enclosure size of at least 300 m2 per horse (chapter 2). I further investigated the stress level of the introduced animals. Horses which were immediately introduced did not show elevated faecal GCMs. In contrast, horses which were introduced after an observation period had slightly elevated values 2 and 3 days after the introduction. For horses introduced together with an integration horse faecal GCMs were significantly above the baseline value on the day of introduction and 1 day after it. These differences between introduction techniques indicate that the introduction event itself is not as stressful as previously assumed. Rather standing together with an integration horse and not being able to integrate immediately into the complete group elicits stress in horses (chapter 3). In the commentary of chapter 4 several studies are discussed which failed to demonstrate social learning in horses. It is argued that they did not consider important aspects which could have an influence, such as the dominance status or the social background of the horses (chapter 4). In chapter 5 a social feeding situation was investigated. The social rank as well as the position of conspecifics affected the feeding strategy of horses. Domestic horses used social cognition and strategic decision making in order to decide where to feed. When possible they tended to return to the same, continuously supplied feeding site and switched to an ?avoidance tendency? in the presence of dominant horses or when another horse was already feeding there (chapter 5). One possibility to recognize group members is through olfactory recognition. In chapter 6 it is shown that horses are able to distinguish their own from their conspecifics? faeces. In addition, they paid most attention to the faeces of those group members from which they received the highest amount of aggressive behaviour (chapter 6). Horses show cognitive abilities because they are able to use humans as local enhancement cues when searching for food, independently of their body posture or gaze consistency when the persons face them. Moreover, they seem to orientate on the attention of familiar persons more than of unfamiliar persons (chapter 7). Altogether, the results of this thesis provide further support for the view that horses show good conflict resolution strategies. They are perfectly able to deal with the conflict situation of being introduced to new group members, and the introduction event itself is not as stressful as previously assumed. It is rather suggested that standing together with an integration horse and not being able to integrate immediately into the complete group elicits stress in horses. All additional experimental set-ups could demonstrate that horses are well capable of social cognition.