We should all observe horses, but will we agree on what we see?

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“We all should watch and observe our horses,” says researcher Marc Pierard. “There is great power in the practice of observation and in what we can learn from this simple act.”

Pierard is working on a project to produce a descriptive catalogue of behaviours in horses.

While it may sound simple, Pierard and his fellow researchers faces major challenges in developing one for use in equitation science.

Ask a veterinarian, a judge and a farrier to describe a particular horse and you might get three very different answers.

Show them a set of behaviours and ask them to name and characterise them and you might well believe they were observing different horses altogether.

This might be amusing as a party game, but when it comes to discussing behaviour at a scientific level or to comparing one behaviour study with another, it presents a unique set of problems.

Pierard, from the University of Leuven, Belgium, with his colleagues Professors Paul McGreevy and Rony Geers, are getting back to basics and re-starting the discussion around the development of such a catalogue, known in the scientific community as an ethogram.

They outlined their work this week in a paper presented at the International Society for Equitation Science annual conference in Australia.

Whilst it is common practice for researchers to develop their own study ethograms for use in their individual pursuits, the ultimate goal of a species ethogram is to produce a comprehensive list of clearly defined and named behaviours and, ultimately, what they mean.

A simpler descriptive ethogram for use in equitation science would allow apples to be compared with apples, if you will. However, there is a long way to go to reach that goal.

The availability and adoption of such an ethogram would increase the validity, repeatability and comparability of equitation science behaviour studies allowing for more efficient statistical analysis. Whilst it may sound very basic research, the work is only now being done.

For this project, the researchers conducted a feasibility study using a panel of 13 equitation science researchers plus 10 high level practitioners.

The panelists received basic training on the application of a reference ethogram and were asked to score a series of short video clips displaying a range of behaviours.

The results showed a high level of agreement between academics and practitioners, indicating a high degree of accuracy and reliability.

According to these preliminary findings, agreement on descriptive definitions of behaviours is certainly possible.

Pierard said agreement on the description was the first step in the process.

“We should not ignore the importance of description-based research,” he said. “We should avoid what Konrad Lorenz called ‘the fashionable fallacy of dispensing with description’.

“The work of developing a descriptive reference ethogram may be an enormous task, yet we could never consider the work to be finished; it should allow for flexibility, it should invite constant and rigorous criticism and welcome attempts at improvement.

“Once the description and definition is commonly agreed upon we can move on to the business of explaining causes and functions, but first we need to get back to basics and build a solid foundation.”

The conference in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, has drawn more than 170 delegates.

The International Society for Equitation Science is a nonprofit group that aims to facilitate research into the training of horses to enhance horse welfare and improve the horse-rider relationship.

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