Horses under stress – can experts identify the signs?


arena-stockCan equestrian professionals recognise signs of stress in the ridden horse?

Some could do better, research suggests.

Researchers in Britain assessed the abilities of 12 equestrian professionals to assess horses.

Nottingham Trent University researchers Carol Hall, Rachel Kay and Kelly Yarnell, presenting at the 10th International Society for Equitation Science conference in Denmark, said that “the interpretation of ridden horse behaviour by equestrian professionals, vets, instructors and riders, was found to differ from that suggested by physiological evidence”.

Ridden horse behaviour was assessed by four instructors, four riders and four veterinary surgeons as they viewed video footage of 10 horses ridden at a walk, trot and canter in a pre-defined ridden test lasting 2-3 minutes.

The horses were scored on seven performance parameters derived from the FEI rules for dressage and German National Equestrian Federation scales of training (relaxation, energy, compliance, suppleness, confidence, motivation and happiness).

Scientists analysed the video footage independently. All aspects of the behaviour of the horse were recorded, including ear position and movements, tail position and movements, mouth movements and salivation, auditory signals, head and neck position and nasal angle.

Each horses’ nose angles (behind and in front of the vertical) and head carriage (high, neutral and low indicated by the position of the horses’ nose relative to the body) were analysed.

In general, equestrian professionals scored horses who spent most of their time with a high head carriage negatively; and those with a lower head carriage more positively. This was contrary to the physiological evidence from stress-related hormones measured in saliva and eye temperature.

Only the instructors associated neutral head carriage (nose in line with body) and nose angle as a positive sign.

The FEI guidelines state that the nose should always be in front of the vertical and the physiological data gathered in this study supports this principle.

Increased awareness of, and reference to, the FEI guidelines would ensure more consistent evaluation of ridden horse behaviour occurred, Hall and her colleagues suggested.

The conference ends this weekend.


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