Useful Science for Horse Owners

By: Kym Griffin


I am an equine behavior and welfare researcher, the reason I took this obscure and difficult career path is the same as most people in my field; because I am a horse rider, owner and lover. I want to learn as much as I can to be sure I am doing the best I can for my horse. This is why I get so disheartened when I see how badly horse research is received by the equestrian community on social media. Articles written by non-sciency and often non-horsey journalists for non-horsey readers sometimes make the study seem… well… a bit obvious for those for those who work with horses daily. ‘Why didn’t they just ask a horse person and save all that time and money!’ is a common response. With the rise of social media there is more emphasis on scientists communicating their own research, and who better than the person who understands the science and how it is relevant to the equestrian community, right? I am an avid believer in scientists learning to communicate their research and its relevance effectively. So to practice what I preach, here I try to summarise 3 studies that I find really interesting and that have direct relevance to the equestrian community. Here it goes!

Study 1: Horses prefer to walk across mats that are the colors green, red, brown or grey. Horses do not like to walk across mats that are highly contrasting or (in their vision) colorful, this includes, black, white, blue, yellow. (Hall and Cassaday, 2006)

What does this mean for horse people: What color is the flooring in your horse transport? Most rubber mats are black which makes this small, dark and scary space even more scary! Putting down shavings can be a small way to make a big difference.

Study 2: Horses don’t like to be patted! Researchers investigated the behavior of horses from video footage from the dressage at the 2012 Olympics games. They found most horses reacted by accelerating (a flight response) when the rider patted their neck (Hancock et al., 2014, ISES conference proceedings). Alternatively, scratching the horse just in front of the wither has been shown to directly reduce heart rate which is probably why we see horses mutual grooming at this area! (Feh and de Maziéres, 1993)

What does this mean for horse people: Scratch don’t pat! It can be hard after a good ride, when the adrenalin is pumping, to resist the urge to express your enthusiastic gratitude to your best team mate! But a scratch on the wither or a stroke on the neck is a much better thank you than a pat from the horse’s perspective.

Study 3: Horses look at scary or threatening objects with their left eye or sniff with their left nostril. This is because information from the left eye/nostril feed into the right hemisphere of the brain which is where information relating to negative emotions is processed. Novel objects that are neutral are explored with their right eye/nostril, the left hemisphere of the brain is involved in the categorization of novel object with neutral emotional value. Positive objects (like a bucket!) are usually explored by horses with their binocular vision which uses both eyes in order to better assess the 3D characteristics of the object, so no side is preferred. (De Boyer Des Roches et al., 2008)

What does this mean for horse people: When introducing new objects to your horse, introduce it on the right side first. If your horse is investigating an object with their left eye/nostril, be cautious! Try to soothe the horse with a wither scratch (see study 2) and soft tone of voice, don’t push them to get closer, and be prepared in case they decide to make a break for it!

About the Author:

Kym Griffin is an academic associate at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, working towards her PhD regarding sleep patterns in horses and what influence that has on performance. Originally from Australia, she started on her journey of academia by studying Zoology in her undergraduate program. Kym then went on to obtain a Master of Science degree in Animal Behaviour and Welfare from Queen’s University in Belfast, IRL. She is very active in the areas of animal behaviour and welfare, with particular focus on equine learning and training, and is an avid supporter of Equitation Science. In the past she was very involved in Pony Games, as well as eventing. Kym spent several years retraining rescue horses for rehoming and has been very involved in academia since, but she is looking forward to getting back into eventing when life permits.