What is your horse afraid of? Noise anxiety examined in study

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Researchers in Italy describe noise anxiety as a widespread behavioral problem among horses.
Photo by Don Sniegowski

Noise anxiety is a widespread behavioral problem among horses, Italian researchers report, with the most anxious animals often showing no signs of improvement over time.

The distress arising from noise can lead to negative welfare consequences for horses, Maria Giorgia Riva and her fellow researchers wrote in the journal Animals.

Noise anxiety is an over-reaction to loud noises commonly seen in pets. It can greatly affect not only their welfare, but their management.

“Being a prey species, horses evolved to rapidly react to potential danger and loud noises may be perceived as such,” they said.

“Therefore, they can exhibit several anxiety behaviors during noisy events, including sweating, trembling and escape attempts, which may cause severe accidents for the horse and the rider/handler.”

Researchers in the University of Turin study set out to investigate, through a online survey, how British and American owners perceived the severity of noise anxiety in their horses, the management strategies they employed, and how effective they proved to be.

The questionnaire was shared via social networking and advertised as “What is your horse afraid of?”.

A total of 1836 questionnaires were filled out, with two-thirds of the responses from the United Kingdom.

In all, 409 owners, or 22 percent, reported that their horse had shown unusual behavior during a noise event.

The researchers found that horses affected by noise anxiety tended to cluster into one of two groups, very anxious or slightly anxious.

Very anxious horses were reported to have a higher frequency of anxiety behaviors, had a higher frequency of signs of noise reactivity, and their anxiety did not improve with time.

The most used management strategies consisted of providing hay throughout the night (especially during fireworks), turning horses either in or out depending on the circumstances, or moving them to a paddock. However, most of these techniques were reported to be effective only in the slightly anxious subjects.

Providing hay throughout the night was more likely to be a very effective management strategy in only the slightly anxious horses, the study team reported.

Horses injured during noise events were more likely to be clustered in the very anxious group.

The most common observed behavior in anxious horses was fence or box walking and running, followed by sweating.

Other signs reported by owners included appetite loss, diarrhea, fence breaking, weaving, bucking, trembling, vocalisation, and fever. Even though fever showed up rarely in the survey, three participants observed an increase in body temperature in their horses during noise anxiety.

Anxious behaviors were limited to the duration of the noisy event for 80% of the horses in the slightly anxious group, compared to 49% in the very anxious group.

“In some cases, especially with very anxious subjects, anxious behaviors lasted up to two hours after the noisy event ended (35%) or even until the next day or longer (14%).”

The results, they said, confirmed that noise anxiety is a growing behavioral problem that can lead to important welfare concerns for horses. Severe noise anxiety can trigger physiological impacts, such as gastrointestinal signs and sweating, and behavioral consequences, such as running or breaking fences.

Horse owners on both sides of the Atlantic reported being quite concerned about noise anxiety in their horses, particularly among those whose horses have severe noise anxiety-related problems.

They suggest that new management strategies should be considered, including the use of medicinal products, to reduce behavioral and physiological signs and help horses cope with noisy events. Owners of very anxious horses were more receptive to the idea of using such products than owners of slightly anxious horses.

The study team comprised Riva, Michela Minero, Sara Barbieri and Emanuela Dalla Costa, all with the University of Turin; Francesca Dai, with Il Rifugio degli Asinelli (an Italian donkey refuge), and Mirja Huhtinen, with the Orion Corporation in Finland.

Riva, M.G.; Dai, F.; Huhtinen, M.; Minero, M.; Barbieri, S.; Dalla Costa, E. The Impact of Noise Anxiety on Behavior and Welfare of Horses from UK and US Owner’s Perspective. Animals 2022, 12, 1319. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12101319

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

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