Polish researchers have cast light on the degree of motivation horses have to jump.
Sport horses proved to be more willing jumpers than leisure horses, the researchers found, but that willingness appeared to wane with only modest increases in jump heights.
Aleksandra Górecka-Bruzdaemail, from the Polish Academy of Sciences, and fellow researchers noted that showjumping was one of the most popular equestrian disciplines.
However, strategic jumping was seldom used by free-living horses when negotiating obstacles that they might otherwise avoid.
They set about trying to establish if horses were naturally motivated to jump in a free-choice situation when negotiating various obstacles under test conditions.
Their findings have been published in the July issue of Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.
Eighteen leisure horses, not typically jumpers, and 16 sport horses were monitored while participating in a series of two-choice tests.
First, horses were presented with two optional routes to reach food. One was a shorter route over an obstacle while the alternative was a longer route around the obstacle.
During eight consecutive trials, the horses encountered an increase in obstacle height on every second trial, ranging up to a modest maximum of 50 centimetres.
In a ridden test, after an initial conditioning period, the horses were then tested with a Y-maze formation during three consecutive trials, where one element of the maze contained an obstacle arm. The horses showed a strong preference to walk or trot over the obstacle (59.9 percent), jumping it in only 10.7 percent of cases.
For both the leisure horse and sport horse groups, the motivation to traverse the obstacle decreased as the obstacle height increased, with only 44.1 per cent of horses actually negotiating the 50-centimetre obstacle compared with the 20-centimetre obstacle (85.3 percent).
The group of leisure horses preferred to go around the obstacle significantly more often than the sport horse group.
The leisure horses used a jumping strategy to clear the obstacle far less frequently (4.2 per cent across six trials) than the sport horses (18 percent across 23 trials).
“There was no evidence of any correlation between the motivation to clear the obstacle and total number of obstacle arm choices in either the leisure horse group or the sport horse group,” the authors wrote.
“The findings from the present study indicate that sport horses are motivated and willing to jump obstacles more often than are leisure horses under similar conditions.
“However, the apparent reluctance of the horses overall to continue jumping as the obstacle height increases suggests that, in general, many horses could easily encounter excessive demands … in sport.
“This issue should be carefully monitored in terms of equine training, competition, and welfare,” they said.
To jump or not to jump? Strategies employed by leisure and sport horses
Aleksandra Górecka-Bruzda, Ewa Jastrzębska, Anna Muszyńska, Ewa Jędrzejewska, Zbigniew Jaworski, Tadeusz Jezierski, Jack Murphy.
Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research – July 2013 (Vol. 8, Issue 4, Pages 253-260, DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2012.10.003
The abstract can be read here