Fresh research into spooking behavior in horses may not have turned our understanding of the issue on its head, but it has certainly turned it on its side.
Researchers in Colorado have explored one of the most frustrating and risky aspects of spooking for horse owners – the habit of some mounts to baulk at an object that should be familiar to them.
Most riders have experienced the phenomenon, sometimes to their detriment. A horse may have seen an object dozens of times before, but it spooks when approaching it from a different direction. Or, it may have been moved slightly in some way.
Spooking is a significant safety issue. One study has shown that spooking is associated with 27% of horse accidents, often unseating the rider.
Megan Elizabeth Corgan, Temple Grandin and Sarah Matlock, all with the Department of Animal Science at Colorado State University, have described an experiment involving 20 two and three-year-old quarter horses.
The trio, writing in the journal Animals, carried out their preliminary study in a stable aisle which featured an alcove part-way down. In the alcove, they placed a colorful child’s plastic play-set, which measured about 1.3 meters by 1.3 meters by 1 meter.
The experiment, conducted over several days, involved leading the horses past the alcove and monitoring their behavior.
For each of the first three days, the horses were led past the alcove five times. The researchers found that the horses needed 4 to 13 exposures to the environment before they were assessed as being familiar with it.
For the next three days, the play-set was placed in the alcove and the horses were led past it five times each day, with their behavior videoed and assessed for evidence of spooking.
For the final three days of the study, the horses were split into two groups and again walked past the alcove five times a day. For the control group, the play-set was in the original position it had been in the preceding days. For the other group, the play-set had been rotated 90 degrees clockwise.
Behaviors were again recorded and assessed, based on a scale of reactivity.
The authors found significant differences in behavior between the control group and the rotated group.
“Horses that reacted to the novel object in the rotated group reacted similarly on the first pass by the rotated position of the object as they did on the initial pass by the novel object,” the study team said.
The most significant differences between the two groups were seen in the first four passes. “After pass 4 by the rotated object, there was little significant difference between the rotated and control groups,” they said.
“When a previously familiar complex novel object is rotated, the rotated object may cause reactions similar to the initial exposure to the novel object,” the researchers concluded. “This,” they said, “confirms what handlers and riders have described anecdotally.”
They said that understanding horses’ reaction to a rotated object is important for the safety of riders and handlers.
“If handlers expect horses not to react to subtle changes in a familiar environment, they are less prepared for a horse spooking which could lead to an accident.”
Studies, they said, have shown that investigative behavior in horses is correlated with learning.
“Allowing a horse to investigate and become familiar with all orientations of an object can help to avoid spooking.”
Future studies are needed to evaluate if allowing a horse to fully investigate a novel object will help with habituation and decrease spooking, the researchers said.
“Even subtle changes to a familiar object can cause horses to react again. These subtle changes can cause the horse to need more exposure until they are habituated or until no reactions are shown again.
“Handlers need to be aware of this for safety of themselves and the horses.”
They continued: “This study shows that despite findings from previous research, horses may not recognize different orientations of previously familiar objects when being led by a handler.
“While assumptions cannot be made about the horse’s recognition of the rotated object from the present study, there is an obvious reaction to the rotated object. This reaction is important to note and important for anyone handling horses to be aware of.”
The study team said training methods are worth further exploration when researching equine perception of novel objects.
“Humans can have an impact on how the horse reacts and behaves.” There may, they said, be a difference between a voluntary approach, when compared to being led by a handler.
Researchers in a 2014 study found that a familiar handler can have a calming effect on the horses’ response to a novel object, as well as a change in fear response.
The Colorado study team said a greater reaction to new orientations of previously familiar objects had the potential to cause accidents. “If handlers and riders can be prepared for how a horse may react, they may be able to help reduce risk by adjusting training methods to allow for investigation of all sides of an object.
“Additionally,” they said, “while horses show a decrease in reactions to novel objects and novel orientations of familiar objects, there is the possibility for reactions during habituation.
“Further research needs to be conducted to evaluate how different methods of handling and training affect the horses’ reaction to changes in their environment.”
Corgan, M.E.; Grandin, T.; Matlock, S. Evaluating the Reaction to a Complex Rotated Object in the American Quarter Horse (Equus caballus). Animals 2021, 11, 1383. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11051383