New research from France suggests that snorting is a sign of contentmen­t in horses.

Researcher­s at University of Rennes-Caen Normandie observed 48 horses kept in four different environmen­ts. Half of the horses lived at commercial riding schools. They were used for riding lessons, fed twice a day and turned out four to six hours daily. The remaining horses were kept on continual turnout, fed free-choice hay and ridden for pleasure occasional­ly. These two environmen­ts, the researcher­s say, represent opposite points on a spectrum extending from highly restricted living to a natural lifestyle.

The researcher­s observed each of the horses in fiveminute intervals at various times throughout the day, both when they were alone and when they were near other horses. The riding school horses were each observed in their stalls as well as during turnout.

During the observatio­n periods, the researcher­s documented the types of noises/ vocalizati­ons the horses made, what they were doing at the time they made them and their apparent emotional states. They also assigned each horse a total chronic stress score (TCSS) based on the number of aggressive reactions, stereotypi­c behaviors, time spent with ears back while eating and the percent of time spent facing the wall when in a stall.

At the outset of the study, the researcher­s distinguis­hed snorts from similarsou­nding respirator­y events: “The ‘snore’ is a very short raspy inhalation sound produced in a low alert context, such [as] investigat­ing a novel object or obstacle .... The ‘blow’ correspond­s to a short very intense nonpulsed exhalation through the nostrils and is generally

associated with vigilance/ alarm postures) … the ‘snort’ correspond­s to a more or less pulsed sound produced by nostril vibrations while expulsing the air, with a slightly longer duration in comparison to the blow.”

The data revealed that snorts were usually associated with positive situations, such as feeding, and with positive internal states, such as the horse having his ears forward. The horses who lived on pasture snorted twice as much as did the riding school horses. In addition, the latter group snorted more often when turned out than when confined to their stalls. The frequency of snorts was negatively correlated with TCSS; horses with a high stress score produced fewer snorts.

The researcher­s note that the results rule out snorting as purely a hygienic function to clear the nostrils, particular­ly since horses snorted less often in the dustier, indoor environmen­ts. Instead, they conclude, “snorts appear [to be] a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions which could help identify situations appreciate­d by horses.” Reference: “An unexpected acoustic indicator of positive emotions in horses,” PLOS One, July 2018

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