Annuaire IPHC

DEPE | Stratégie scientifique » Ethologie évolutive » Composition de l’équipe » Mathilde VALENCHON


My research interests are on the interface between cognition and sociality, in domestic species especially. I aim to understand how individual differences -resulting from personality or social status- influence how animals think, process information, perceive each other and interact socially. My objective is to keep a strong emphasis on the evolutive processes underlying socio-cognitive phenomena in mammals while also opening up innovative applied perspectives for welfare purpose.


What makes a good leader ? The animal origin of leadership (with Odile Petit, PI)

In this project, we aim to understand what makes some particular animals good leaders. Precisely, we aim to characterize which individual characteristics underlie leadership in horses in the context of collective movement. These individual characteristics include intrinsic characteristics (e.g. personality, physiological parameters such as body mass, cortisol level) as well as social characteristics (e.g. centrality, hierarchy).

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How do the followers decide to follow an initiator ?
Crédit photo : Nans Burgarella / CNRS-UdS

To understand why some horses appear to possess a higher social credibility, we have developed an experimental approach in domestic horses to complete the traditional observations of spontaneous group movement. Therefore, we are now able to compare experimentally induced collective movements with spontaneous collective movements. The objective is to ask to the potential followers which initiator they prefer to follow and how strong this preference is.

We are collaborating with Marjorie Amadouche from the Elevage du Haut-Barr (Saverne, Alsace, France) who makes her horses available for our studies.
Website :

This research is supported by the University of Strasbourg Institute for Advanced Study (2014-2016 USIAS Fellowship of Odile Petit) and the Fondation des Treilles (Young Researcher Award 2016)
Website :

The different steps of an experimentally induced initiation

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Crédits photos : Bernard Stoloffs

Keeping horses in groups : implication for equine welfare and consequences on human-Horse relationship (co-PI, with Odile Petit)
This project consists in exploring how the social environment of domestic horses impacts their welfare and their relationships with humans. Indeed, many ordinary housing practices (e.g. individual stables) supress the opportunity for horses to interact and establish social network, which is against their behavioural needs as a social species. Social deprivation is known to have strong impact on horses. It mays alter drastically welfare, induce health problems, degrade human-horse relationship, and decrease the safety for both humans and animals. However, the evolution of practices is already at strike and our studies aim to support this evolution by providing scientific knowledge on horses’ sociality and the development of housing practices that enable every horse to have access to an adequate social environment.

The first step of the project consists in studying the possibility of keeping stallions in groups rather than in social isolation context.

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Two stallions interacting
Crédit photo : M. Valenchon / Jumenterie du Pin / CNRS

Those studies are conducted at and in collaboration with the Jumenterie of the Haras National du Pin station (Normandy, France). They are supported by the Scientific Council of the French Institute for Horses and Riding (IFCE).

Music has charms to soothe the savage breast… and reduces stress in horses (PI)
My second applied project focuses on the management of stressful events. Indeed, domestic horses are regularly subjected to stressful situations due to management practices, such as social isolation, transport and farriery or, in general exposure to new/sudden stimuli. These situations may be stressful and eventually harmful to the horses’ welfare, possibly altering their relationships with humans and increasing the risk of safety hazards for horse and people. In this context, our goal was to develop a simple procedure that may reduce animal stress when subjected to such acute stressors. The procedure consisted in exposing horses to music diffusion. Indeed, music has been proven to possess relaxing effects on various animal species. In horses especially, it has been shown that the diffusion of classical music can regulate heart rate and reduces violent behavioural reactions when played in the horse’s environment during long-term stressful situations. Therefore, we developed a project in collaboration with the French start-up Horsecom aiming to explore the influence of music diffusion on horses during stressful episodes and the mechanisms underlying this influence.

During the first study we conducted in 2015, we tested the effect of classical music played with an in-ear device on the intensity of stress reaction when horses were exposed to two stressful situations : short-term transport and farriery (shoeing). The study was carried out at a French National Stud (Haras du Pin, France) on saddle horses. We found that playing classical music reduced stress during transport, which could lead to safer management practices and better welfare. We are now working on initiating a PhD project to continue investigating the influence of music on domestic horses to improve welfare.

This project is supported by the Scientific Council of the French Institute for Horses and Riding (IFCE), the Normandie Incubation program, and the French research group in Ethology GDR d’Ethologie.
This project is conducted in collaboration with :
Claire Neveux, Ethonova
Ludovic Dickel and Valentine Bouët, GMPc, University of Cean
Odile Petit, CNRS-University of Strasbourg
Marion Férard, Master student

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We tested the influence of music during different stress episodes
Crédit photos : Marion Férard, Haras du Pin


Influence of temperament on learning and memory performances and its modulation by stress in domestic horses Equus Caballus (PhD with Léa Lansade and Frédéric Lévy, INRA Val de Loire, France)

The aim of my thesis was to characterize the relationships between temperament and cognitive performances in horses and their modulation when influenced by stress. The temperament was evaluated considering five dimensions : fearfulness, reactivity to humans, gregariousness, tactile sensitivity and locomotor activity. The relationships between these dimensions and performances during instrumental learning tasks as well as working memory tests have been investigated. The dimension of fearfulness seems particularly important and its influence depends on the presence or absence of stressor. Fearfulness has a positive effect on performances in case of intrinsic stress, i.e. the cognitive task is the source of stress ; and a negative effect in case of extrinsic stress. Without any stressor, these relationships are more contrasted. To a lesser extent, relationships between cognitive performances and the other dimensions of temperament have been found. Especially, the dimension of locomotor activity has a positive effect on performances that stands out only in presence of stressors, whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic. This thesis contributes to the characterization of links between temperament and cognition, which is a domain in wide expansion, and shows the importance of stress in order to understand these relations.
Key-words : inter-individual variability, personality, stress, instrumental learning, working memory, long-term memory, mammals
Website :

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One of our learning tasks : the horse has to touch one of two cones according to experimenter signal
Crédit photo : M. Valenchon/INRA

Influence of dominance status on cognitive performance and stress reactivity in laboratory mice
Dominance relationships are essential part of the organization in a wide range of animal societies. Many studies suggest that social status can modulate different behavioural parameters of an individual (especially cognitive performance, exploratory behaviour and susceptibility to stress). However, the literature is not unanimous since the nature of the links between all these parameters still remains unknown. Furthermore, these social aspects are rarely investigated in several research fields (e.g. neurosciences, pharmacology) despite the fact that these researchers base their experimental paradigms on the assessments of behavioural performance of social species (e.g. mice, rats). Therefore, our project consisted in studying inter-individual variability of learning and memory performances according to dominance status laboratory mice. Our results indeed revealed inter-individual asymmetries according to social status. Overall, our study emphasized the role of social experience to set up experimental protocols.
In collaboration with Ludovic Dickel, Thomas Fréret and Valentine Bouët, GMPc, University of Cean

Key words : social hierarchy, stress, anxiety, cognition, reactivity to humans, rodents

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Illustration : M. Valenchon


Valenchon M., Lévy F, Moussu C. Lansade L. In revision for PLoS ONE. Influence of temperament on instrumental learning performances according to reinforcement used and stress level in horses.

Lansade, L., Valenchon, M., Foury, A., Neveux, C., Cole, S. W., Layé, S., Cardinaud, B., Lévy F., & Moisan M-P. 2014. Behavioral and Transcriptomic Fingerprints of an Enriched Environment in Horses (Equus caballus). PLoS ONE (12):e114384.

Valenchon, M., Lévy, F., Fortin, M., Leterrier, C. & Lansade, L. 2013. Stress and temperament affect working memory performance for disappearing food in horses, Equus caballus. Animal Behaviour, 86(6) : 1233-1240

Valenchon, M., Lévy, F., Górecka-Bruzda, A., Calandreau, L. & Lansade, L. 2013. Characterization of long-term memory, resistance to extinction, and influence of temperament during two instrumental tasks in horses. Animal Cognition, 16(6) : 1001-1006

Valenchon, M., Lévy, F., Prunier, A., Moussu, C., Calandreau, L. & Lansade, L. 2013. Stress Modulates Instrumental Learning Performances in Horses in Interaction with Temperament. PLoS ONE, 8(4) : e62324

Lansade, L., Baranger, G., Coutureau, E., Marchand, A., Valenchon, M., and Calandreau L. 2013. Dimensions of Temperament Modulate Cue-Controlled Behavior : A Study on Pavlovian to Instrumental Transfer in Horses (Equus Caballus). PLoS ONE, 8(6) : e64853

Valenchon, M., Lévy, F., Neveux, C., and Lansade, L. 2012. Horses under an enrichement program showed better welfare, stronger relationships with humans and less fear. Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research, 7(6):e16


Valenchon M. 2015. La vie en groupe : pas toujours si simple. (EN : Living in social groups : it is not that simple). Cheval Magazine, N° 528 - November 2015

Valenchon M. 2015. Organisation sociale des chevaux domestiques élevés en groupe : quelles caractéristiques individuelles sont à l’origine du statut social ? (EN : Social organisation of horses housed in groups : which individual characteristics influence social status ?). Magazine “Equ’idée” from IFCE, N° September 2015

Valenchon M.  2014. Inspirons-nous de leur façon de communiquer. (EN : Let’s be inspired by how horses communicate with each other’s). Cheval Magazine, Special-issue N° 31 « Communication ». October 2014
Valenchon, M. 2014. Quand le tempérament influence l’apprentissage. (EN : When personality influences learning abilities). Cheval Magazine, n°509 - April 2014. P. 49-52
Valenchon, M. 2014. Mal-être physique et mal-être psychologique : sont-ils liés ? (EN : Physical distress and Psychological distress : are they related ?). Cheval Magazine, Special-issue N°3 - April 2014. P.26-29

Valenchon, M. 2013. Les performances d’apprentissage dépendent du tempérament de chaque cheval. (EN : Learning performance depends on the personality of each horse). Magazine “Equ’idée” from IFCE, N° December 2013

Valenchon, M.  and Lansade, L. 2011. Quels chevaux apprennent le mieux ? Les performances d’apprentissage sont inégales selon le tempérament des chevaux. (EN : Who is the best learner ? Learning performance differs according to personality in horses.) Magazine “Equ’idée” from IFCE, N°75


Equine earphones could help horses relax . The , March 2016
Dossier : Tempérament et Apprentissage. Alter Equus, September 2015.
Researchers examine horses’ social statuses. The, 24th June 2015.
Enrichissement de l’environnement chez le cheval. Alter Equus, 19th January 2015.
Effect of Stressful Situations on Horses’ Working Memory. The, 14th June 2012.
Horses’ Long-Term Memory Put to the Test, The, 17th October 2013.