Eyes are a window to a horse’s soul, its eyelids a pointer to stress

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Horses seem to cope well with removal of an eye, the findings of research suggest.
Rates of blinking and eyelid twitching are an indicator of stress in horses, researchers find.

A fresh Canadian study is thought to be the first to reveal the significance of eyelid twitches as an indicator of stress in horses.

“With humans, we already know our blinking changes when we are under pressure, explains the University of Guelph’s Professor Katrina Merkies, lead author on the study.

“Some studies have shown we blink more when agitated while others found we blink less.

“We wanted to see if horses blink rates change too,” said Merkies, a professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences at the Ontario Agricultural College, which is part of the university.

Although many horse handlers can tell when their animals are agitated, it can sometimes be hard to get a good read on a horse’s mood — particularly if the animal has been well trained.

The study team found that horses blink less and twitch their eyelids more when under mild stress.

The finding, reported in the journal Animals, could offer handlers a simple, easy-to-spot sign their animal is becoming agitated.

“When we train horses, we specifically teach them to suppress their stress responses because we don’t want horses to react when they are startled or nervous,” Merkies says.

“But even if they’ve learned to suppress their reaction, it doesn’t actually decrease the stress they feel.”

Professor Katrina Merkies

While stress can be measured through heart rate monitors or blood cortisol levels, Merkies and her team wanted a non-invasive measurement, so they decided to test whether a horse’s eyes could offer clues.

They recruited 33 horses of various breeds from three riding lesson facilities in eastern Ontario and exposed them to three mildly stressful scenarios.

In the first, a ball was thrown in front of the horse in an attempt to startle the animal. In the next, the horse was visually separated from its herd for a few minutes. Finally, the horse’s food was withheld for three minutes at feed time while its herd mates were allowed to begin eating.

The researchers filmed the horses, watching for changes in eye and ear movement, head tilt and general restlessness.

They found that withholding the feed for a few minutes was the most stressful for the horse as indicated by its increased heart rate, restlessness and head movement. Conversely, separation and the startle test evoked little response.

“It’s important to remember these were riding school horses, so they were used to being startled and being separated. But the withholding of food was new, so that’s likely why they became stressed.”

When researchers reviewed videos of the horses’ eyes during feed withholding, they noticed the horses blinked less but twitched their upper eyelids more.

A horse with a heart-rate monitor fitted during the startle test. The ball was tossed about 2 metres in front of the horse. Photo: Merkies et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9080562

On average, the horses’ full blink rate decreased to an average of five blinks per minute during the stress compared to the eight to nine times per minute when relaxed.

During the feed restriction, when the horses felt the most stress, their eyelid twitches increased from an average of two twitches per minute to six twitches per minute. There was no increase in eyelid twitches with the other stress tests.

Merkies said she hopes her team’s finding will help horse handlers looking for simple ways to gauge their animals’ moods.

“There’s no one measure that is going to tell us everything, but this is another tool we can add to the toolbox that we can use together to understand our animals better,” she said.

Eye Blink Rates and Eyelid Twitches as a Non-Invasive Measure of Stress in the Domestic Horse
Katrina Merkies, Chloe Ready, Leanne Farkas and Abigail Hodder.
Animals 2019, 9(8), 562; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9080562

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

Earlier Horsetalk report

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