A new study shows that observing how a horse acts in his stall could offer clues to how a ride might go: A horse that’s angry or unhappy in his stall will most likely carry that negative attitude into the arena.
Lead researcher Alice Ruet used 43 lesson horses to test her theory. The study horses were kept in stalls and turned out for one hour a week in individual paddocks. They were used by advanced riders six hours a week for dressage, eventing or jumping lessons.
The study team watched the stalled horses for six weeks, noting their behavior several times each day. The scientists were specifically looking for clues that the horse was in a negative mental state—that he may be experiencing “compromised welfare” from being in a stall. The behaviors they were looking for included aggression toward people, cribbing or other stereotypies, hypervigilance, or a withdrawn posture, which indicated a depressed state.
The researchers then asked the head instructor three questions about each horse’s way of going under saddle, including whether he was anxious or fearful, if he seemed uncomfortable, or if he was unwilling to go forward.
The final phase of the study had one rider who was unfamiliar with the horses ride each horse using the same tack. The rider was equipped with inertial sensors on her head and back. The horse wore a sensor on his girth. The ride was recorded, and an independent assessor noted behaviors that may indicate a negative attitude, like head shaking, tail swishing or bolting, as well as the horse’s overall demeanor.
The scientists found a correlation between behavior in the stall and how a horse moved under saddle: Horses that were aggressive to humans while in their stalls had choppier gaits while being ridden. They also found that horses that were withdrawn in their stall were more reluctant to go forward when asked. The scientists conclude that a horse in a poor state of welfare is likely to be more unhappy when being ridden, linking welfare to performance.
Ruet suggests additional studies could be done to investigate whether management changes could influence a horse’s mood and under-saddle movement.
Read more at EQUUS.
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