Why horses make the best kind of friends

Best friends forever? The interaction between horses and humans is not without its challenges.
Best friends forever? The interaction between horses and humans is not without its challenges.

Researchers are taking an increasing interest in the bonds that form between horses and riders.

Many horse owners will read the latest findings and declare, “I didn’t need a scientist to tell me that”, but the application of scientific principles in exploring these relationships is important.

Humans have a tendency to anthropomorphise – to ascribe a human motivation to an animal’s action or response. This has no place in trying to ascertain just what is motivating a horse in its relationships with humans.

So what is modern-day science telling us about the horse-human relationship?

Researchers from Norway and North America have probed this relationship in detailed open-ended interviews with 60 riders from a wide variety of backgrounds.

They identified three central themes of what they called co-being – embodied moments of mutuality and engagement. It is, they say, a kind of anthropo-zoo-genetic practice, where species domesticate each other through being together.

Norwegian researcher Anita Maurstad, a professor in the Department of Cultural Sciences in  Tromsø University Museum, explains that, in essence, both the horse and the human become attuned to each other’s physical and mental ways, thus developing the state of co-being.

Riders, she said, got to know their horses’ personalities through ongoing processes of deep engagement. Owners came to identify the different personalities, both generally and individually.

lungingMaurstad and her research colleagues from the University of South Dakota’s Department of Anthropology and Sociology found that riders did not simply see their horses as passive reflections of themselves. The relationship was much more complex.

Horses, she notes, lead their lives partly with humans, partly with other horses. Horses appeared to learn to relate to people in ways that provide them with good quality of life.

The findings will strike a chord with many owners, who cherish their relationships with horses.

But not all relationships will necessarily progress smoothly. Not all relationships are plain sailing.

Others researchers have found that horses can buckle under exactly the same kinds of stresses that affect humans: learning difficult new tasks, boring day-to-day routines, poor relationships, negative reinforcement, insufficient rewards, and troublesome bosses (trainers).

They can lead to frustration and neuroses, behavioral scientists suggest.

Professor Martine Hausberger and her fellow researchers in France note that horses, like people, are often asked to work on a daily basis, involving interpersonal interactions not only with other working horses but also with a “boss” – the human who manages or rides the animal.

“Work sessions are based on training, using more often negative reinforcement or punishment than positive reinforcement,” they noted.

Conflicts and tensions can easily arise.

Hausberger, who directs the Department of Ethology at the University of Rennes 1 in France, suggests negative experiences linked to training could lead to chronic states where horses “switch off”, becoming unresponsive and apathetic – states described in humans in cases of work-related burnout.

Abnormal repetitive behaviors in horses are thought to be a way for animals to cope with an unfavorable stress-inducing environment.

So what would seem to be areas of greatest stress?

An Austrian study confirms that starting a horse under saddle causes stress, which rises markedly during the first time a rider gets on the horse.

Researcher Alice Schmidt and others at the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna, measured stress by examining the horses’ heartbeats and the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.

Schmidt used three-year-old horses at the start of their training. Not surprisingly, she found the start of training was a stressful period.

Interestingly, when the horse and rider walked or trotted forward, the level of stress decreased somewhat.

“It seems as though the horse adapts rapidly to the idea of being ridden and that – as is the case for humans – exercise may help relieve stress,” she says.

arena12Fellow researcher Jörg Aurich cautions that a lack of care or an incorrect regime in early training could cause long-term damage to the relationship between a horse and its rider. It could prevent a sport horse reaching its full potential, as well as causing the animal unnecessary anxiety.

Schmidt has some reassuring words for trainers and riders concerned about stress levels in training.

“The stress caused by being ridden for the first time is nowhere near as much as that caused by being transported by road. And if you are gentle and careful when you start to train a young horse, it will soon get used to you.”

In France, researchers extended stress research to the role of temperament in training, in an experiment involving exposure to different levels of stress before a learning task.

Each animal was assessed beforehand for temperament based on fearfulness, group sociability, reactivity to humans, level of locomotor activity, and sensitivity to touch.

The study, led by Mathilde Valenchon and published in the open-access journal, PLoS ONE, found that temperament influenced learning performance, but only when the learning or re-learning performances were affected by stress, suggesting that temperament had little influence on learning ability provided lessons occurred in a stress-free environment.

They found that while direct exposure to a stressor tended to increase learning performance, the state of stress induced by the memory of a stressor during efforts to re-learn or reinforce the task impaired performance.

Valenchon, in another study, explored the effects of stressful situations on the working memory of horses, testing the ability of 30 Welsh pony mares to remember in which of two buckets they would find a carrot.

A researcher dropped a carrot in one of the buckets in sight of the mares. Each horse was made to wait between zero and 20 seconds before being allowed to the bucket to retrieve the carrot.

In a calm setting, the horses were found to have an average working memory of 16 seconds.

However, when the testing was performed under stressful conditions – involving the likes of a barking dog and a waving sheet – they performed much worse.

Researchers have also found that different disciplines induce different levels of stress in horses.

Findings from French research indicate that dressage and high-school work create higher levels of stress in horses than the likes of jumping, eventing and vaulting.

Dressage and high-school work create higher levels of stress in horses than the likes of jumping, eventing and vaulting.
Dressage and high-school work create higher levels of stress in horses than the likes of jumping, eventing and vaulting. © Vetmeduni Vienna/J. Aurich

The scientists from the University of Rennes 1, in findings, published in PLoS ONE,  set about studying 76 French Saddlebred horses stabled at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation in Saumur.

The researchers – Hausberger, Emmanuel Gautier, Véronique Biquand, Christophe Lunel, and Patrick Jego –monitored the horses in their stables for behaviors called stereotypies – abnormal repetitive behaviors with no useful function. These include repetitive mouth movement, head tossing or nodding, wind-sucking, cribbing and weaving. Sixty-five of the 76 horses performed some type of stereotypey.

They also found that the type of work performed by the horses each day had a significant influence on the prevalence and types of undesirable traits shown, unearthing what they said was the first evidence of potential effects of work stress on the emergence of abnormal behaviors in an animal species.

“It raises an important line of thought on the chronic impact of the work situation on the daily life of [horses],” the researchers said.

Vaulting horses appeared least prone to stereotypies whereas dressage/high-school horses presented the highest incidence.

The authors pondered why dressage appeared to cause the most stress.

“Dressage and high school both expect horses to restrain from expressing emotions and put a strong physical constraint on the movements,” they noted.

“Moreover, cases where orders can be conflictual are more frequent here as the restricted gaits are often obtained by refraining movement through the reins and bit while pushing forward the horse through the legs.”

“Therefore both physical and interactional stress can explain the high prevalence and types of stereotypies observed in these horses.”

They noted: “Although some work stressors involved here may be specific to equine work, others are clearly shared with other species, including humans: emotion suppression, interpersonal conflict, physical demands, lack of reward and negative future expectancy that are associated with depression in humans.”

Stress, it would seem, is part and parcel of the negative reinforcement techniques used by some in training.

A Danish study found that while negative reinforcement in training may be beneficial in getting horses used to unfamiliar objects,  the stress response had to be considered.

The researchers found that temperament influenced learning performance, but only when the learning or re-learning performances were affected by stress, suggesting that temperament had little influence on learning ability provided lessons occurred in a stress-free environment.
Temperament influences learning performance, but only when the learning or re-learning performances were affected by stress.

Janne Winther Christensen, of Aarhus University, writing in the Equine Veterinary Journal, investigated whether horses showed increased stress responses when negatively reinforced to approach novel objects, compared to horses that were allowed to voluntarily explore the objects.

She found that negative reinforcement aided habituation in young horses, there was an increased stress response during initial exposure.

“Although negatively reinforced approach appears beneficial for habituation, the procedure should be carefully managed due to increased stress responses in the horse which may constitute a safety risk,” Christensen said.

It seems almost ironic in all of this, given the potential stress potentially involved in the daily lives of horses, that those properly trained for the competition environment do not suffer from one of the curses of human performance – stage fright.

Austrian researchers pondered whether the human condition, with all its nasty manifestations such as rapid pulse, dry mouth, shaky voice, blushing and sweaty palms, manifested itself in horses in some way.

Work by Professor Christine Aurich and her team at the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna, confirmed that horse riders suffered more stress when performing in front of an audience than when practising for the event. However, the horses themselves reacted identically whether or not spectators were present.

Horses and riders thus saw the challenges of competing differently, the scientists concluded.

There are many reasons why riders might be more stressed when performing in front of an audience than when practising. As Aurich says: “They are only human, after all.”

In contrast, the horses appeared not to be affected by the presence of spectators: their reaction to the course was essentially independent of whether an audience was present.

The results implied that riders did not communicate their heightened anxiety to the animals.

Taking a saliva sample from a performing horse at Saumur. © Vetmeduni Vienna/J. Aurich
Taking a saliva sample from a performing horse at Saumur. © Vetmeduni Vienna/J. Aurich

The lack of transfer of emotions between rider and horse was completely unexpected.

Aurich concedes: “We started with the assumption that the rider’s stress would affect his horse but this does not seem to be the case.

“Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that we were working with experienced horses and highly skilled riders: our findings cannot be generalized to inexperienced riders, who might be less able to prevent their horses from being stressed by the situation.”

So, if relations with your equine friend are cordial, could you perhaps take it to the next level? Why not over a nice meal?

For horses, friendship is one thing, food is another.

French and Polish researchers found that the best way to a horse’s heart is through food.

They looked at whether horses were motivated more by a tasty morsel or a good, old-fashioned scratch. Food was the hands-down winner.

The researchers evaluated the pulling power of pieces of carrot against a decent scratch on the withers during a training task.

Carol Sankey, Séverine Henry, Aleksandra Górecka-Bruzda, Marie-Annick Richard-Yris and Hausberger devised a simple experiment in which Konik horses were rewarded by one of the two methods when taught to stand still for a period of time.

Their findings indicated that humankind – a tactile species – may mistakenly believe horses derive more benefit from the human touch than is actually the case.

In short, they suggest that horses simply aren’t the touchy-feely type.

Food wins out over grooming.
Food wins out over a scratch when training.

“While in some species, like humans, physical contact plays a role in the process of attachment, it has been suggested that tactile contact’s value may greatly differ according to the species considered,” the researchers noted.

“Grooming is often considered as a pleasurable experience for domestic animals, even though scientific data is lacking. On another hand, food seems to be involved in the creation of most relationships in a variety of species.”

The food-rewarded horses progressed rapidly, especially during the first three days of training, the researchers noted, while the groomed horses’ progression was limited to the first two days of training, after which they stagnated.

The researchers also found that the food-rewarded training had a more positive impact on the animals’ relationship with the person, based on their approaches and interest.

“Grooming the withers therefore does not appear to be an efficient reinforcement for horses,” they concluded.

Food, they said, appeared to be one of the keys in the bonding process in the human-horse relationship.

“There is an idiomatic expression that says: ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. It seems that this may not only apply to humans, but could indeed be the case for many species, [including] horses,” Sankey and her colleagues said.


Latest research and information from the horse world.

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