Recognise the signs of distress.

A new scientific study suggests owners often miss signs of stress. Even experienced horse owners risk missing signs that their horses are experiencing stress or fear.

The team of researchers from the Equine Behaviour and Training Association warn that when people fail to recognise the behavioural signs of pain and fear, the horse’s distress remains unresolved, reducing the horse’s welfare and having potential safety implications for the handler.

To investigate the public’s ability to recognise such signs of equine distress, members of equestrian Facebook groups were asked to view and comment on six videos; these videos were selected by the study authors on account of their portrayal of horses behaving in a manner suggestive of negative affect.

For comparison, responses were also obtained from six equine behaviourists, who identified behaviours suggestive of varying degrees of distress.

While respondents successfully recognised behaviour consistent with negative affect in some instances, videos featuring natural horsemanship and bridle-less riding were often wrongly interpreted to be positive experiences for the horses.

Despite recognising behaviours indicative of distress in some videos, a minority of respondents nevertheless said they would have been happy for their own horse to be treated similarly.

Participant age and experience had little effect on the results; however, responses by people who had selected “clicker training” as their preferred equestrian activity were more closely aligned with those of the equine behaviourists than other members of the equestrian community.

This study can be used to inform the outreach activity of education and welfare organisations, through improved recognition, and subsequent reduction, of equine distress.

“We were interested to find that signs of stress and fear in horses being used for natural horsemanship and bridleless riding were not recognised as readily as stress signs shown by, for instance, a dressage or western reining horse”, said Dr. Catherine Bell, one of the authors of the study. “It seems there is something about these more novel types of training that lulls us into thinking the horse is fine.”

Another outcome of the study was that the experience and self reported ability of participants had no effect on how capable they were at identifying signs of fear and stress signs shown by horses.

“Even long-term owners and some professionals were no better at recognising this subtle body language than more novice owners”, said Dr. Bell. “And many of us also overestimate our abilities, regardless of our equestrian experience.”

The researchers believe their findings to be relevant for both equine welfare and human safety. Instead of waiting until a horse exhibits dangerous signs of fear such as rearing or bolting and then pushing through that behaviour with increased pressure, owners could learn to recognise subtler signs of stress to prevent accidents from happening.

“It is important not to underestimate the welfare impact of what we do to our horses in even just ‘normal’ handling”, said Dr. Bell. If we miss these early signs of fear and stress then horses tend to escalate their behaviour into something more dangerous. When we respond sympathetically to early signals we are not “letting him get away with it” but reducing the chances of these dangerous behaviours, keeping ourselves and our horses safer.”

The Equine Behaviour and Training Association has published a free guide to recognising the small signs of fear

The study is titled: Improving the Recognition of Equine Affective States by Catherine Bell, Suzanne Rogers, Julie Taylor and Debbie Busby and can be read in full here.