Poker Face: Do we really know how well horses are coping with daily life?


Horses are known to show different strategies to avoid tasks and procedures they don’t want to complete. Some do anything other than the specific task and others don’t take any action at all (so far, so very human!). In the case of a handling task, such as loading onto a trailer, some individuals will freeze and become unresponsive and others rear, reverse or rush forward. Individuals in the equestrian community often state that the horse that freezes is just “stubborn” but isn’t stressed and others think the proactive response of the other horses means they’re “bad”. Another possible misconception within the industry is that compliance indicates a horse is coping well with whatever procedure they’re being subjected to. It’s often said “You can’t make a half-tonne animal do what it doesn’t want to do”.  

To explore these commonly held perceptions, Dr Carrie Ijichi and her team from University Centre Hartpury and Nottingham Trent University put horses through two handling tests. In one they were lead over a blue tarpaulin on the ground and in another they were led through plastic coloured streamers. They looked at how quickly horses completes the tests and, if they refuse, what strategies they used to avoid it. They also measured core temperature using infrared thermography, heart rate and heart rate variability during the handling tests. 

Results showed that neither compliance nor refusal strategy correlated with stress physiology. These findings indicate the equine industry needs to be more careful about making assumptions about the emotional state of horses because it may be easier to detect stress in some individuals than in others. First, a horse complying with a procedure doesn’t indicate that they’re coping well with it as it commonly argued. It might just be that they’re very well trained or that they’re unusually compliant for some other reason. Second, freezing or fight/flight responses are strategies the horse uses to keep itself safe and cope with whatever challenge we’ve presented them with. It’s important to be mindful of whether punishment is the best response from the handler or rider if the horse is already stressed. The next step with this project will be to explore what behaviour indicators are reliable indicators that could be practically applied within industry.

This paper has led to front page news coverage in Horse and Hound and Your Horse Magazine, due out on 5th April 2018. The full paper can be found here.