Review: Equine Study

This review is going to be a little bit different. Instead of a book, I’m offering a review of a study on the human-horse relationship: “Improving the Recognition of Equine Affective States”. Sound exciting? Maybe not? Well, stick with me – I think you may find it interesting.

Although the study was published late last year, it was recently covered by The Horse on their website. The study caught my attention because it revolved around how well horse owners recognize negative behavior in horses. The subtitle on The Horse article seemed to capture what I might have assumed: “Most horse people miss the signs of negative emotional states in horses, even in those trained with ‘natural horsemanship’ techniques.” Based upon some arguments I have seen on social media, it would be no surprise to me that many people miss the signs of negative behavior in horses. I cannot tell you how many times people have told me that horses swish their tails around out of pleasure, like a dog wagging its tail! However, reading the study’s findings, the subtitle and the statements in the article are actually a bit misleading. Since it is an important topic, I thought it would be fun to offer a overview, share my concerns, and provide a link to the study if you want to dig deeper.

The study itself was a collaboration between Catherine Bell, Suzanne Rogers, and Debbie Busby, all of the Equine Behaviour and Training Association; and Julie Taylor, one of the founders of The material used in the study included six videos shot by the team, representing a variety of equine activities (more on those later). The respondents were from several large Facebook groups, based mainly in the U.K. A total of 185 participant responses were received. The respondents watched the video clips and were to rate their observations of the horses’ attitudes based upon a number of possible selections. To establish a baseline, there were also six accredited equine behaviorists registered with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) who took the survey. Where their responses overlapped was considered the ‘correct’ answer – a problematic approach which I will cover later.

People commonly fail to recognise the behavioural signs that horses display when they experience pain and fear. Consequently, the distress remains unresolved, reducing the horse’s welfare and having potential safety implications for the handler. In order 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 ….

Improving the Recognition of Equine Affective States, Simple Summary, page 1

According to the article in The Horse, “85% of respondents misinterpreted signs of negative emotions in horses.” Again, I would be willing to accept that as plausible – but it’s not that simple. In three of the videos, respondents actually had a very high success rate for matching the experts. The 85% that The Horse quoted was the percentage where people got something wrong in at least one video. That might be that they detected no negative emotions in the horse – but it also meant they might categorize what they saw as negative differently from how the six experts did. Considering that most horse owners are more familiar with their own discipline, and will view theirs through a different lens than other disciplines, it seems logical they wouldn’t get them all ‘correct’. I am pleasantly surprised that they got as many right as they actually did! However, it gets even more interesting from there.

The six activities represented in the video clips were: ridden Dressage, natural horsemanship, in-hand Dressage, bridle-less riding, Western reining, and behavioral rehabilitation. All of the videos were intended to show negative emotions in the horses, since that was the purpose of the study. All of the experts agreed that all showed negative emotions – though they differed somewhat on their characterization of it. All also agreed that while negative emotions were shown in the behavioral rehabilitation video, the methods used were not in anyway pressuring the horse.

The descriptions the respondents were to select from, in describing the horse’s attitude in each video, were chosen because of their commonly used nature. However, there is little actual science to back-up which was the ‘correct’ answer – for that they relied upon the six experts that participated. This is where the current state of equine study gets problematic. The only characteristic these ‘experts’ had in common was to be registered with the ABTC. While this puts them above the average horse owner in understanding horse behavior; short of a scientifically accepted criteria for each definition, the descriptions are still purely subjective. While that does not invalidate their findings (and they are clear in the paper that there are challenges), it does mean that someone who selected a description that no expert did, even if they may have also selected one that matched, made their answer “incorrect”.

All participants selected at least one affective state for each video clip and typically selected more than one. … It was clear that the responses included a high number of … selections, in keeping with the experts. However, for some videos there was also a lower but consistent selection of those affective states that were typically not selected by the experts. … a participant selecting “frustrated” and “fearful” for video 1 would be considered correct, whereas “frustrated” and “playful” would be considered incorrect.

Improving the Recognition of Equine Affective States, Simple Summary, page 6

The videos that received the most correct responses, by the study’s standards, were the two Dressage videos (ridden and in-hand) and the Western reining video. The results for the behavioral rehabilitation video were basically split 50/50, correct/incorrect. The video where respondents scored the worst? The natural horsemanship clip. Although significant numbers of people did rate the horse as “anxious”, “conflicted”, “stressed”, or “switched off”; high numbers also showed up for “enjoying”, “playful”, and “relaxed”. Similar results were shown for the bridle-less riding clip.

The conclusion seems clear, as stated in the study and quoted in The Horse article, that we have a cultural bias toward bridle-less and natural horsemanship as evoking positive sentiments. Sadly, that is definitely not always the case – though try to argue that with followers on Facebook! Those two videos also had the most respondents who perceived only negative emotions, yet would still permit their horse to be treated that way – albeit it was, thankfully, still not the majority. Unfortunately, only 30 respondents said that they would not want their horse to go through what they saw in videos 1-5 (excluding the behavioral rehabilitation, which most seemed to recognize as unavoidable stress with an abused horse). That leaves 155 respondents who either failed to recognize the stress in at least one of the videos (the majority) or would be willing to put their horse through those negative experiences anyway.

One more interesting note on the responses. The survey asked respondents to list signs of a horse who is frightened or stressed. Many respondents were able to list some of the subtle signs, but a greater proportion of overt behaviors, such as bolting, trembling, or vocalization were listed. This seems to indicate that owners may well miss the early signs a horse would exhibit, leaving the situation to get far worse before being addressed. Anecdotally, this seems to fit with my observations, and seems worth further research.

Not from the study, but similar; which of the words would you use to describe this horse?
Also not from the study, but similar; which words apply to this horse?

The researchers did a lot of statistical correlations between age, experience, self-perceived sense of their ability to identify equine distress, and what discipline someone participated in. All of that is outlined in the study, which I would encourage you to read if you find those correlations interesting (they are too numerous to outline here). Of note was the fact that those whose activities were “happy hackers”, Dressage, or Eventing were more likely to get correct answers on the Dressage clip; while clicker trainers were more likely to get the right answers on the natural horsemanship and behavioral rehabilitation videos. As I said above, it seems logical that one’s own education and chosen pursuit would inform how one perceived the behavior across a range of disciplines.

The researchers are very clear on the limitations within their study. Nothing I have said here is much different from their own assessments. Still, I am pleased to see this topic being researched, as I believe that misunderstanding horse’s emotional indicators is a serious problem in modern riding. The researchers also made several recommendations for additional studies that are needed, including the level of recognition of positive emotions in horses. I do hope they, or someone else, follow through on those recommendations. I look forward to the findings!

You can read the study for yourself, here. The paper (in PDF format) includes stills from each of the six videos that give you a sense of what respondents saw. If you want to further educate yourself to recognize equine emotional states, you might start with the EBTA’s Ladder of Fear. There are some very good annotated videos of various horses to help you train your eye.

I hope you enjoyed this slightly different review. I will be back to books for my next review, but may occasionally bring in studies that I find particularly interesting.

A capture from one of my favorite videos on the EBTA Ladder of Fear page

4 replies

  1. Veterinarians have been doing studies of distress in horses from their point of view and found horses offer many subtle signs of discomfort long before most people notice. In the vet clinic, pain relief results in less signs of distress which is about as objective a criteria as I’ve seen. Distress is expressed thru ear position, stress lines of the nostrils, lips, cheeks and eyelids.
    If your horse is showing any of these signs under saddle, it is time to look for what is causing them distress! I posted a link to a posture showing horses in pain some six years ago in the hopes that more people would download a copy and hang it in their barn. I did have a few takers then so here is the link to that info for anyone interested.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I have been sharing that as well. Thanks for adding it here! I think too many people let the situation color their reaction – a horse with a cut leg probably feels pain, so they see it; but a horse doing an activity we like cannot have those same pain signs … must be something else. But, I do see a growing awareness … small and slow, but growing. So here’s hoping it has an impact!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think it’s so important to understand horses’ emotional states, especially since they can’t speak to us in words. After reading about the study, it’s clear that recognizing negative emotions in horses can be difficult, but it’s crucial for their well-being. As a horse owner myself, I want to do everything I can to ensure my horse is happy and healthy. This study has opened my eyes to some of the signs I may have been missing. It’s also a reminder to be mindful of how I interact with my horse and to always strive for a positive relationship with him.

    On a related note, I’ve found that using calming supplements for horses can be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety. There are many options out there, but I’ve personally found that StressLess is the best calming supplement for horses. It’s made with all-natural ingredients and has worked wonders for my horse. Of course, every horse is different, so what works for one may not work for another. But if you’re looking for a natural way to help your horse relax, I’d definitely recommend giving StressLess a try.

    Overall, I think this study highlights the importance of being in tune with our horses’ emotions and doing what we can to support their well-being. Whether that means learning to recognize signs of stress and anxiety or trying out different calming supplements, we owe it to our horses to do our best to help them feel safe and comfortable.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very well said. I have also used calming supplements, with mixed results depending upon the horse and the situation. They can definitely be useful – though in the end, developing trust is the most critical element for getting through challenging situations. Thank you for reading and for the thoughtful comment!


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