The temperament and emotionality of each horse should be taken into account when training them to use treadmills, according to Polish researchers.
Malgorzata Masko and her fellow researchers noted that treadmills have become a popular and important tool in various aspects of equestrianism.
However, they found that most research involving treadmills has focused mainly on biomechanical factors. Little work has been done on the behavioral aspect of getting horses used to the devices.
The study team wanted to find out if temperament influenced the ability or willingness of horses to be trained in their use.
Their research, reported in the journal Animals, involved 14 Polish warmblood horses, comprising six mares and eight geldings.
The stabled horses had a similar daily regime, which included at least six hours of paddock access. The animals were used about five days a week for recreational riding.
None had ever been exposed to a treadmill.
Firstly, the study team performed temperament and emotional response tests on each animal.
The horses underwent a novel object test, a negative emotional response test, a handling test, and a positive emotional test, from which the researchers got a profile of the temperament and emotionality of each animal.
They then underwent treadmill training, which occurred over 10 weeks and involved four stages of gradual habituation.
Each stage was repeated three times, excluding the first-stage test and the final work test, which were repeated once.
The interval between tests or repetitions during the habituation process was always seven days, and the horses were each fitted with a heart rate measuring device before each session.
During habituation, four principal elements were assessed, which the researchers labelled flightiness, freeziness, curiosity, and timidity.
Flightiness was connected with nervousness, agitation and new objects, and easy excitability. Timidity was associated with a lack of courage and stress in new situations. Freeziness was focused on reluctance behavior, while curiosity centered on their interest in novel objects and willingness to approach them.
The researchers found what they described as consistent trends in flightiness, freeziness, curiosity, and timidity in each horse when related to the findings of the earlier assessments of temperament and emotionality.
The results, they said, provided evidence for a connection between temperament, emotional response, and habituation process in a horse.
“Our adapted behavioral test method proved successful in the evaluation of equine habituation processes with diverse behavior-related features.”
The reactions of horses to the different stimuli during treadmill habituation may differ depending on the horse’s temperament and tendencies in emotional response.
They found that the handler’s response to each horse during treadmill work was important, and more would be learnt by further work in the field.
“We conclude that the habituation process should be adapted to the horse’s temperament and emotionality.
“Such findings will improve handler safety and lead to increased horse welfare during the habituation process.
“This is because the handler responses to the horse’s behavioral reactions toward habituation should interplay with the horse’s temperament.”
The study team comprised Masko, Malgorzata Domino, Tomasz Jasinski and Zdzislaw Gajewski, all with the Warsaw University of Life Sciences; and Dorota Lewczuk, with the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Masko, M.; Domino, M.; Lewczuk, D.; Jasinski, T.; Gajewski, Z. Horse Behavior, Physiology and Emotions during Habituation to a Treadmill. Animals 2020, 10, 921.