In this age of social sharing, you may have encountered armchair experts offering their opinions on horse videos and photos across the Internet. But how much can a person really tell about a horse’s stress level just by watching? Researchers from England’s Nottingham Trent University sought to find out. They presented their findings at last week’s International Equitation Science Conference.
Perception vs. reality: Does a high head carriage and a nose in front of the vertical mean a horse is tense, or is he relaxed? Photo: Leslie Potter
Scientists separately analyzed the same footage, recording behavior indicators including the position and movement of the ears, head, neck and tail as well as head carriage and nose angle (in front of, at or behind the vertical.) The researchers measured eye temperature and cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, during each horse’s ridden test to determine the actual stress level.
Horses with a high head carriage were generally rated by professionals from all three professions as having high stress levels and those with a low head carriage were rated more positively. However, the stress indicators showed that the opposite was true. The instructors were the only group that gave an overall positive rating to horses with a neutral head carriage.
The instructors were also the only group to rate a vertical nose position positively. Overall, the professionals gave a negative assessment to horses that went with their nose ahead of the vertical, even though the FEI guidelines state that a horse’s nose should always be slightly in front of the vertical. The stress indicators back up those guidelines. Temperature increased with the duration of the nose carried behind the vertical and decreased when the nose was carried ahead of the vertical.
Although the study is preliminary and would require follow-ups for more information, it appears that even experienced professionals don’t always assess a horse’s demeanor correctly when evaluating a video. Keep that in mind the next time you see a harsh critique on YouTube.
- Based on the cortisol levels, which are considered a measure of stress response, horses are more stressed when they carry their necks low than when they carry them high.
- Based on temperature measurements, horses are most stressed when they move with their nose position behind the vertical and least stressed when ahead of the vertical.
- Overall, equestrian professionals rate horses as appearing less stressed when they have a low head carriage, which runs counter to the evidence.
- Equestrian professionals also rate horses with their noses in front of the vertical as being more stressed, which is also counter to the evidence.
- Riding instructors’ assessments of the horses were a bit more accurate than the other two groups of professionals: professional riders and equine surgeons.
Assessing ridden horse behavior: Professional judgment and physiological measures. Hall, Carol et al. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research , Volume 9 , Issue 1 , 22 – 29 Published Online: December 02, 2013 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2013.09.005
Leslie Potter is the Senior Associate Web Editor for HorseChannel.com. Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieInLex