Is your horse more stressed than you think?

Does your horse plant his feet when you ask him to do something? Far from being stubborn, it could be a sign of stress. Here to explain more is Dr Carrie Ijichi, from the University Centre, Hartpury who reveals the results of her most recent study.  

I recently worked with Kym Griffin, from Nottingham Trent University, and two students here at University Centre Hartpury, Keith Squibb and Rebecca Favier, on an exciting project looking at how horses respond to handling challenges.

We put horses through two handling tests – one where they were led over a blue tarpaulin on the ground and one where they walked through plastic coloured streamers.


These tests simulate situations like (loading onto a trailer or walking past a scary object), which are challenges that horses face as part of their lives with us.

It’s really important to use tests that the horses haven't seen before and that’s why we us such colourful, creative tests instead of using everyday objects.


What was the test?

We looked at how quickly the horses completed the test and, if they refuse, what strategies they used to avoid it.

Some horses just planted their feet and became totally unresponsive, whereas others reared, reversed or rushed forward past the obstacle.

Some people think a horse who freezes is being stubborn and associate dramatic responses (for example rearing) with naughtiness, rather than signs of stress. 

We put heart rate monitors on the horses. This was to detect subtle changes in the horse's heartbeat, which will change when stressed.

We also took thermal images of the horses' eyes because a horse's eye increases in temperature with stress.

Thermal images can reveal the temperature of a horse's eye

Thermal images can reveal the temperature of a horse's eye

What did the research find? 

It turned out that some really stressed horses completed the tests quite quickly, whereas others planted their feet. 

There was no difference in stress between the horses that froze and those that fought to get away.

What this tells us is that we have to be really careful about making assumptions about how our horses feel.

First, it's important to remember that just because your horse is complying with a procedure, it doesn’t mean he's okay with it.

It might just be that he's very well trained or that he's unusually compliant for some other reason.

Also, freezing or fight/flight responses are all just ways that the horse tries to keep himself safe and cope with whatever challenge we’ve presented him with.

Punishing your horse when he tries to avoid something won't be the best strategy if he's already feeling stressed.

The next stage of our research is to look at what other behaviours are better indicators of stress in horses. We'll be calling on horse owners for help, so keep an eye out for further details.

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