Ears tell story of jumping success – researchers

Simon and Beezie Madden.
Top US showjumper Beezie Madden and Simon. © Paul Harding/Lewis Harding Images

The ears tell the story of success or failure, it would seem, when it comes to jumping in horses.

Three Canadian researchers looked at the ear positions adopted by horses in jumping to determine whether it hinted at any particular outcomes.

University of Guelph researchers Katrina Merkies, Teaghan Reid, and Samantha Seewald found that horses that positioned their ears forward while going over a jump were more likely to clear the obstacle successfully than those who oriented their ears back or toward the rider.

However, ear direction on the approach to the jump did not correlate to jumping success.

Their findings were outlined to delegates at the recent annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science in the United States.

Merkies and her colleagues from the Ontario university noted that hearing in the horse was not only essential to survival as a prey animal, but was also instrumental in understanding the horse for the purposes of training and riding.

Ear direction can be a strong indicator of a horse’s response to a task. Ears perked forward normally indicate attentiveness. However, it could also be a sign of fear in the horse.

Ears placed to the side may indicate relaxation or disinterest. Ears turned back may show attentiveness to the rider, while a horse with ears laid back suggests irritation or pain.

The trio said little research existed assessing ear direction relating to attention to predict behavioral responses to the rider or environment.

Their study attempted to correlate ear direction with the success of clearing a jump.

Cerona and Hendrik Jan Schuttert.
Cerona and Hendrik Jan Schuttert. © FEI/Dirk Caremans

Videos of 17 horse-rider combinations were evaluated over 22 jumping efforts in a single grand prix class.

Ear direction was scored by two independent observers as forward, split (one ear forward, one ear back) or back at three points: upon take-off, over and landing after the jump.

Analysis determined that ears positioned either back or split when over or landing after the jump was related to significantly more jumping faults at each obstacle.

There was no effect on jumping faults when ears were positioned forward, and ear direction did not appear to have an effect upon take-off for the jump.

Thus, ear direction appears to be a predictor of success in clearing a jump, they concluded.



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