Before you tack up, take a minute to observe your horse in his stall for clues to his mood. If he appears unhappy or aggressive, prepare yourself for a bumpy ride: He is likely to have a negative attitude and choppier gait when working under saddle. That’s the upshot of new research from France.

The study, conducted at the Université de Tours in Nouzilly, included 43 horses used for lessons at a riding school. The horses were kept in box stalls and turned out for only one hour per week in individual sand paddocks. Otherwise, they were ridden about six hours a week---in dressage, jumping or eventing exercises ---by advanced riders studying for instructor exams.

For the first six weeks of the study, the horses were observed in their stalls several times a day and their behaviors were documented. Researcher­s specifical­ly looked for indicators of a negative mental state and “compromise­d welfare” associated with being kept in a stall, including aggression toward people, a withdrawn posture reflecting a depressive state, general hypervigil­ance toward the

environmen­t, or cribbing and other stereotypi­es. The average number of observatio­ns for each horse was 90.8 during this period.

Next, the researcher­s asked the head instructor at the riding school, who was familiar with all of the horses, to complete a survey that asked three questions about each one’s tendencies under saddle, such as if he exhibited fear or anxietyrel­ated behaviors, was reluctant to move forward or showed discomfort.

Finally, the researcher­s had the horses ridden by a single expert rider using the same type of tack for each. The rider was not familiar with the horses and was not aware of the behaviors that had been observed in the stall. The riding sessions were filmed and the video reviewed by an independen­t assessor who noted overall demeanor, as well as certain behaviors that might indicate a negative attitude, such as bolting, head shaking and tail swishing.

In addition, the rider was outfitted with two inertial sensors to track the movements of her chest and lower back and an additional sensor was placed on the underside of the girth to measure the horse’s torso movement in all directions.

When the researcher­s analyzed the collected data they found correlatio­ns between a behavior expression of negative emotion in the stall and under-saddle performanc­e.

“Our results showed that horses who were aggressive toward humans in loose boxes had higher dorso– ventral accelerati­ons than non-aggressive horses,” says Alice Ruet, PhD. The rider also experience­d more movement while on the aggressive horses. “This result indicates that aggressive horses have a stronger whole-body strike on the ground. Visually, this characteri­stic of locomotion gives the impression of a ‘jerky’ gait.”

Ruet says that other studies have found similar correlatio­ns in people, whose emotions influenced their way of walking. “This result is very interestin­g because in humans, the emotions felt can be reflected in the way of moving. It seems that this is the first time in horses that a link has been made between the state of welfare and the way of moving.”

The difference did not necessaril­y mean horses were more difficult to ride, says Ruet. Instead “The crux of this study is that horses in a state of poor welfare are in a more negative emotional state when they are ridden.”

Horses who were not aggressive in the stall expressed their negative emotional state in other ways under saddle. For instance, horses who were withdrawn in the stall scored higher on the survey question about reluctance to move forward. Horses who were hypervigil­ant or exhibited stereotypi­es in the stall were more likely than their peers to adopt negative behaviors and body postures under saddle.

Ruet says these findings can open the door to more work linking welfare with performanc­e. “These results contribute to many perspectiv­es, such as better understand­ing the links between the welfare of the horse, its health and its performanc­e under saddle.”

And while this study did not investigat­e whether changes in management could influence a horse’s under-saddle movement and attitude, Ruet says efforts to improve overall welfare reduce a horse’s negativity and, therefore, might result in better performanc­e. “The scientific literature now provides a better and better understand­ing of the needs and motivation­s of horses,” she says. “For example, it would be interestin­g to try to optimize practices such as grooming as much as possible, in order to establish a good quality human-animal relationsh­ip that can generate positive emotions in animals.”

Reference: “Horses could perceive riding differentl­y depending on the way they express poor welfare in the stable,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, November 2020

 ??  ?? The research indicates that aggressive horses have a stronger “whole-body strike on the ground,” a characteri­stic of locomotion that visually gives the impression of a “jerky” gait.
The research indicates that aggressive horses have a stronger “whole-body strike on the ground,” a characteri­stic of locomotion that visually gives the impression of a “jerky” gait.

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