Horse conformation: Researchers probe head and neck preferences

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Measurements that appeared at six variants for each attribute presented in random order.
Measurements that appeared at six variants for each attribute presented in random order. Images: PLOS ONE

Differences between men and women in their head and neck preferences in horses have been revealed in an Australian study.

The University of Sydney researchers also found a difference in preferences between novices and experienced owners.

Researchers Georgina Caspar, Navneet Dhand and Paul McGreevy used an internet survey to drill down into participants’ preferences around neck and head conformation and position.

They identified some aesthetic preferences that bore no relationship to function and that may even run counter to horse health and rider safety.

Participants, gathered through three websites, were asked in an online survey to rate their preferences for horse silhouettes that showed three gradations of five elements – facial profile, neck crest height, ear length, ear position and head-and-neck carriage.

There were 1234 usable responses, the trio reported in their findings, which have been published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal, PLOS ONE. The respondents were found to be mostly female – 88 percent – and heavily skewed toward experienced horse owners.

The results showed that overall preferences were for the intermediate, rather than extreme choices in terms of body shape.

However, males were 2.5 times less likely to prefer thicker necks rather than the intermediate shape, and 4 times more likely to prefer the thinner neck shape.

When compared to the novice participants, experienced participants were 1.9 times more likely to prefer a thicker neck shape than the intermediate neck shape, and 2.8 times less likely to prefer a thinner neck shape than the intermediate neck shape.

The six facial profile illustrations presented in random order to participants.
The six facial profile illustrations presented in random order to participants.

There was an overall preference of 93 percent for head carriage “in front of the vertical”. However, novice participants were 1.8 times more likely to choose “behind the vertical” than “in front of the vertical”.

Overall, the results suggested that people preferred a natural head carriage, a concave facial profile (dished face), larger ears and thicker necks.

Outside of the neutral, or intermediate outlines, the preferences were for thicker necks, concave facial profiles and longer ears, they reported.  “These trends are not surprising given the current preponderance of sport horses with such features being marketed in the equestrian media,” they said.

Some of the innate preferences identified in the survey may run counter to horse health and welfare, the researchers said.

“The apparent appeal of thicker necks is important because some training techniques that make horses’ necks appear convex, particularly hyperflexion, have been shown to compromise horse welfare and may jeopardize rider safety.”

The researchers said further research should explore the origins of these preferences and whether they influenced breeding and riding decisions.

The researchers, all within the Faculty of Veterinary Science, said domestic horse showed diverse conformation.

“Over many centuries, horse shapes appear to have been modified to suit different human purposes.

“The motivation for human preferences has no doubt changed over time with the shifting role of the horse in society.

“More recently, and in contrast to many livestock species, horse breeding has developed with little requirement for profit and, although horses do not share our living space alongside dogs and cats, they are often described as a ‘companion animal’.

It was therefore unsurprising that an aesthetic appreciation of conformation can positively influence financial value, they said.

Caspar and her colleagues said the judgment of non-performance traits can be quite subjective, even though some aspects of conformation relate directly to performance.

“Whether judging a pony in the show-ring, examining a horse as a veterinarian or choosing a racehorse on which to gamble, observers often visually assess equids while standing to one side,” they noted.

This, they said, strongly implied that the outline of the horse’s body was a core attribute and, unsurprisingly, breed standards reflected a focus on conformation as viewed from the side.

McGreevy, they noted, was involved in earlier research that revealed neck flexion was manipulated in advertisements of horses and ponies as riding animals. “This suggests that head-and-neck attributes are of particular interest to prospective buyers of horses.”

The six facial profile illustrations presented in random order to participants.
The six facial profile illustrations presented in random order to participants.

The appeal of flexed necks is further supported by recent studies of dressage judges who, despite being chiefly responsible for assessing the locomotory activity of the horse as a whole, focus their visual attention preferentially on the front half of the horse at the expense of attention to the rear.

The researchers acknowledged there was an abundance of opinion on what constituted the “ideal” equine head.

Discussing their findings, the research team said that while the strong overall preference was for intermediate attributes, the results relating specifically to neck shape and head-and-neck carriage were highly significant.

“Within the current data, experienced females, significantly more than experienced males, preferred a thicker neck. These results do need to be interpreted with caution due to the low numbers of male respondents and the possibility that experienced respondents came from a specific equestrian discipline.

“That said, the preferences reported here may explain some of the breeding and training practices that prevail within some popular equestrian disciplines.”

They said horses displaying excessive flexion of the neck appeared to have a larger crest than when they were flexing their neck naturally. “Perhaps it is the neck’s flexion, rather than its thickness, that humans find particularly appealing.

“Such flexed necks are found in artworks of many cultures, including Japanese, Chinese and European.

“Depictions of war horses, royal horses, wild horses being contained and horses engaged in sport are almost always represented with an unnaturally arched neck.”

From a nutritional perspective, horses with thicker necks were generally fatter, they noted.

“In several equestrian disciplines, excessive flexion of the poll is a desired posture that horses are specifically trained to perform.

“For example, in dressage and showing, there is usually a competitive advantage in the horse maintaining such a position. Breeds frequently used for showing (under saddle and in-hand) and for dressage have been selectively bred for a well-muscled, arched neck. So, it is possible we have revealed a bias that reflects a particular type of equestrian experience.

“However, the current study did not explore the equestrian disciplines with which the equestrian respondents most closely identified, because the primary aim was to compare preferences between horse owners and non-horse owners.”

Caspar and her fellow researchers said the preference found in the survey for a natural carriage rather than a hyperflexed position suggested that, regardless of horse experience, humans recognised that horses carrying their head-and-neck behind the vertical was not “ideal”.

“This is surprising given that, within the world of horse buying and selling, most horses are depicted in these positions.”

Caspar GL, Dhand NK, McGreevy PD (2015) Human Preferences for Conformation Attributes and Head-And-Neck Positions in Horses. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0131880. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131880
The full study can be read here

The six neck shape illustrations presented in random order to participants.
The six neck shape illustrations presented in random order to participants.
The six ear position illustrations presented in random order to participants.
The six ear position illustrations presented in random order to participants.
The six head-and-neck positions presented in random order to participants (A-E from left to right).
The six head-and-neck positions presented in random order to participants (A-E from left to right).
Original silhouette and nasal angle measurement.
Original silhouette and nasal angle measurement.

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