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How to tell if a horse is happy? Listen to the snorts

If you spend a lot of time around domesticated animals, you might begin to notice certain behavioral signals they give depending on their mood. When happy, a dog may wag its tail or a cat will begin to purr – those signals are obvious. But what about horses? How does a horse get across to us humans that it’s in a good mood?

Anecdotal reports have pointed towards the prevalence of horses producing “snorts” – that is, expelling air through their nostrils – when they are in positive situations.

Given this knowledge, Mathilde Stomp of the Université de Rennes, France, and her colleagues wanted to see if they could determine this experimentally. They evaluated snort production by 48 horses that live in either restricted conditions (riding school horses that spent a lot of time in individual stalls) or naturalistic conditions (stable groups of horses always in pasture).

The researchers published their results in PLOS ONE, reporting that snort production was associated with positive situations and a horse’s positive internal state – which is indicated by their ears positioned forward or sideways. Riding school horses produced twice as many snorts in pasture compared to when they were in their stalls. Furthermore, horses that were always in pasture had significantly higher snort production than riding school horses in comparable contexts.

These results provide a potential important tool as snorts appear as a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions which could help identify situations appreciated by horses,” says Stomp.

Our ability to assess positive emotions in animals is an important step in improving animal welfare. Simply put, if a horse is frequently snorting, it’s likely that it has a positive internal state and is happy with its current situation. Indicators such as this can help owners and breeders better suit a horse’s living situation to what makes the animal the most content.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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