Experience may not reduce competition stress in horses, findings show

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Hucul horses compete in a regional pony rally in Rudawka Rymanowska. Photo: Herstass, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Hucul horses compete in a regional pony rally in Rudawka Rymanowska. Photo: Herstass, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Competing for championships is stressful on horses, and experience does not necessarily reduce the anxiety, the findings of a study involving Polish horses suggest.

Jadwiga Topczewska and her fellow researchers noted that some horse breed competitions require performance tests, which can cause anxiety and potentially harm the welfare of these animals.

They set out in a pilot study to determine whether experience related to age and the number of championship starts affected stress levels in a group of 18 clinically healthy Hucul mares.

Hucul horses, sometimes referred to as Carpathian ponies, are one of the oldest mountain horse breeds. They are bred in the Hucul region of the eastern Carpathians.

The mares enrolled in the study all competed in the 2019 Polish Championships for Hucul Horses, for which there was a qualifying path.

The study team assessed stress by measuring levels of the hormone cortisol in the horses’ saliva.

The championship lasted two days, carried out in accordance with the guidelines specified in the breeding and genetic resources conservation program for this breed.

Hucul horses in the Ukrainian mountains. Photo: AlexTodorchuk, CC BY-SA 4.0 via via Wikimedia Commons
Hucul horses in the Ukrainian mountains. Photo: AlexTodorchuk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via via Wikimedia Commons

There was an arena-based conformation evaluation, a 16.3km endurance assessment, and a test known as the Hucul path. The path covered 3.36km, which had to be completed within a time limit The ridden horses were required to correctly negotiate 27 obstacles, with some sections required to be completed in a specific gait.

Saliva samples were collected at baseline (30 minutes before the start of the championship), after the arena-based conformation assessment, after the endurance phase, and after completion of the Hucul path on day two.

The results showed an increase in cortisol levels in all mares after each element of the championship.

Age and a higher number of horse starts did not result in increased resistance to stress accompanying the competition, the study team reported in the journal Animals.

“While appreciating the importance of assessment of the breeding and performance value of horses, it is worth considering the possible association of high levels of stress with multiple starts in competitions, which may exert a negative impact on the welfare of these animals,” the study team wrote.

Put simply, previous experience did not reduce stress levels. The authors noted that the stress reaction in the older mares developed in response to the first element of the championships — the conformation/breeding assessment. “Similarly, the reaction to the consecutive competitions was clearly worse in this group,” they said.

“These preliminary research results may indicate the need for critical assessment of the application of multiple performance tests in horses that are often improperly prepared for intense effort.”

The study team comprised Topczewska, Zofia Sokołowicz and Jadwiga Lechowska, all with the University of Rzeszów; and Wanda Krupa, with the University of Life Sciences in Lublin.

Topczewska, J.; Krupa, W.; Sokołowicz, Z.; Lechowska, J. Does Experience Make Hucul Horses More Resistant to Stress? A Pilot Study. Animals 2021, 11, 3345. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11123345

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

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