Citizen Science: Your Contribution to E-BARQ Already Giving Back

A happy horse owner
Portrait of young woman standing behind horse, brushing, looking at camera, smiling.

E-BARQ, the citizen science project on horse behaviour and management is already giving back, thanks to the contributions of thousands of horse owners.

While 2020 offered fewer opportunities for us to be out and about with our horses, behind the scenes, equine researchers have been gathering data to provide an evidence-base for our training and management decisions.

Studies using the Equine Behavior Assessment and Research Questionnaire (E-BARQ) to which many Horses and People readers are contributing, have now been published.

They reveal how horses age, how their behaviour in-hand can predict dangerous behaviours under saddle, how the numbers of riders they have can compromise training, and even how their exposure to male riders and handlers can affect their behaviour.

For those who haven’t already heard, E-BARQ, a citizen science project, is an online report form available to all horse owners, regardless of the horse’s breed, discipline, age or experience.

You can find the questionnaire here.

It takes between 20 and 30 minutes to complete and when you have done so, you will receive a report describing your horse’s behaviour in thirteen different categories, including;

  • Trainability,
  • Rideability,
  • Boldness,
  • Independence,
  • Compliance and,
  • Confidence.

Known as a Share-&-Compare graph, this first report on your horse will act as a benchmarking tool from which to monitor your horse’s behaviour and training.

Initially, the Share-&-Compare graph will compare your horse’s behaviour with the E-BARQ population of several thousand horses. Best of all, because E-BARQ is an ongoing study, you can update your report every six months.

This means that each new set of scores will be displayed in your results, allowing you to easily spot behavioural improvements or training shortfalls.

What does the research say?

We know that horse behaviour impacts welfare, that is, horses with poor or dangerous behaviour are likely to have compromised welfare.

Furthermore, some treatments for common problem behaviours in domestic horses can directly compromise horse welfare. Such behaviours can be the manifestation of pain, confusion and conflict.

In contrast, among the desirable attributes in horses, boldness and independence are two important behavioural traits that affect the fearfulness, assertiveness and sociability of horses when interacting with their environment, objects, conspecifics and humans. Shy and socially dependent horses are generally more difficult to manage and train than their bold and independent counterparts.

Previous studies have shown how certain basic temperament traits predict the behavioural output of horses, but few have investigated how the age of the horse and their age when they started being trained under saddle affect behaviour.

E-BARQ is a citizen science project
The E-BARQ Share-&-Compare graph acts as a benchmarking tool from which to monitor your horse’s behaviour and training. It lets you compare your horse’s behaviour with the E-BARQ population of several thousand horses, and you can update your report every six months to easily spot behavioural improvements or training shortfalls.

Age-related behaviour

Using 1940 responses to E-BARQ, our team explored the behavioural evidence of boldness and independence in horses and how these related to the age of the horse. Results revealed significant age-related effects on boldness and independence of horses.

Older horses were bolder than younger horses, as one might predict. However, horses started under saddle at an older age were less bold and independent than those started at a younger age.

Additionally, significant differences in boldness and independence relating to specific breeds and primary equestrian disciplines also emerged. Understanding how horses’ ages affect behavioural traits can improve horse–rider matching and potentially also optimise welfare.

The research article, which is titled: Age-Related Changes in the Behaviour of Domestic Horses as Reported by Owners can be downloaded free of charge here. 

Predicting unwanted or dangerous ridden behaviours

Dangerous ridden behaviour in horses, such as bolting, rearing and bucking, are common and may reflect various aspects of the horses’ immediate experience, history and health.

Although dangerous under-saddle behaviours, such as bucking, rearing and bolting, clearly pose a risk to rider safety, the more insidious impact may be on horse welfare as a result of popular treatments for so-called ‘problem horses’.

For this topic, our study aimed to identify any in-hand behaviours associated with these dangerous ridden behaviours based on 1584 responses to the E-BARQ.

First, declining reports of bolting were associated with decreasing problems loading horses onto transporters, increasing social confidence with other horses and other animals, improved leading behaviour and increased tolerance of restraint.

Secondly, declining reports of rearing were associated with decreasing loading problems, increasing social confidence with other animals and increasing tolerance of restraint.

Finally, declining reports of bucking were associated with decreasing loading problems and increasing social confidence with horses and other animals, improved leading behaviour, increasing tolerance of restraint and increasing tolerance of head handling (when bridling/haltering).

These findings could help riders and trainers predict dangerous ridden behaviour before they manifest fully, allowing for remediation that avoids the escalation of force in the training of misunderstood horses and thus improving safety and welfare for both horses and riders.

The research article is titled: Associations between Owners’ Reports of Unwanted Ridden Behaviour and In-Hand Behaviour in Horses and can be downloaded freely here.

The effect of multiple riders

Successful horse training depends on riders giving clear and consistent cues. When cues are inconsistent, the horse may become confused, frustrated, or unresponsive. Of course, each rider or horse trainer differs, to at least some extent, in the way they deliver training cues because humans vary in their weight, height, riding style, handedness, experience, and skill level.

This study explored relationships between the number of people to ride or handle a horse and the horse’s response to training cues. Reports on 1819 horses and ponies were obtained from the E-BARQ.

The number of riders or handlers a horse is exposed to showed a significant relationship with two behavioural indices.

Specifically, as the number of riders or handlers increased, horses were more difficult to accelerate and less difficult to decelerate than horses with fewer riders or handlers.

This suggests that an increase in rider or handler numbers is associated with horses becoming relatively more unresponsive to leg and whip cues than to rein cues.

You can find more detail in the research article, which is titled: Equine Responses to Acceleration and Deceleration Cues May Reflect Their Exposure to Multiple Riders, and can be downloaded for free here.

Does behaviour change depending on the sex of the human?

Any influence of the sex of the human partner in human–horse interactions on the behaviour of horses is currently largely anecdotal.

Associations between the sex of humans and equine behaviour may have welfare implications if, for example, mares are all inadvertently branded with a reputation for being difficult.

Our study investigated observations of ridden and non-ridden horse behaviour, as reported by 1420 E-BARQ respondents.

Results reveal some human sex-related differences between horses handled and ridden by male and female humans.

Horses ridden or handled by male humans were generally more difficult to catch and defensive when approached, but less likely to pull on the reins/brace the neck or toss their head.

These are fascinating results and will prompt further enquiries along these lines. They confirm the importance of considering the sex of the rider or handler when investigating equine behaviour.

This research article is titled: The Impact of the Sex of Handlers and Riders on the Reported Social Confidence, Compliance and Touch Sensitivity of Horses in Their Care. It can be downloaded here 

Going forward

As the numbers of horses described in E-BARQ continues to grow, and translations into French, Spanish and Chinese go online, the database promises to deliver countless insights into the welfare of horses and the safety of the humans who ride and care for them.

Team E-BARQ is excited about welcoming more owners and riders to become E-BARQ collaborators.

Be sure to include your horse in E-BARQ by visiting the E-BARQ website.

Also, for Facebook users, stay up to date with all the latest equine behaviour research on the E-BARQ Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/EBARQsurvey!

E-BARQ, the citizen science project on horse behaviour and management is already giving back, thanks to the contributions of thousands of horse owners.

The E-BARQ Share-&-Compare graph acts as a benchmarking tool from which to monitor your horse’s behaviour and training. It lets you compare  your horse’s behaviour with the E-BARQ population of several thousand horses, and you can update your report every six months to easily spot behavioural improvements or training shortfalls.

 

Dr Kate Fenner, BEqSc (Hons), PhD

Kate is an equine scientist with a PhD in horse behaviour and training from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. She is also an equestrian coach (Equestrian Australia and British Horse Society) and horse trainer (John and Josh Lyons Certified Trainer). Kate has ridden, trained and competed in Dressage, Jumping, Western and Polo in Australia, Europe, the United States and Asia.

After years of experience starting horses for clients, Kate feels strongly that owners are best served by learning to train their own horses. As a result, she founded Kandoo Equine and has developed a series of ethical, easy to follow, step-by-step guides that are suitable for horses and riders of all levels.

Professor Paul McGreevy, BVSc, PhD, FRCVS

Paul McGreevy is a riding instructor, veterinarian and ethologist. He is the Professor of Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of New England. A prolific author and award-winning scientist, he is a co-founder and Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Equitation Science.

Paul established the VetCompass framework for disease surveillance in horses and companion animals. He leads a consortium of all the Australian and NZ veterinary faculties that has developed the One Welfare portal, delivering curriculum resources for the teaching of animal welfare science and ethics. He and his colleague, Dr Kate Fenner, lead the E-BARQ initiative that is revolutionising how we record and understand horse behaviour.

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