Since horses in the wild had to be continuously alert for predators that might attack them, even domestic horses are now hardwired to be alert of potential dangers and often scare easily.
Unfortunately, such “startle response” or “spooking” is reflexive, and many times horses cannot distinguish between real threats and events in their environment that are not dangerous, such as a plastic bag floating by a riding arena.
When horses overreact to perceived threats by rearing, bolting, or bucking, they can create dangerous situations for owners and riders.
In an attempt to overcome such issues, a team of researchers led by the University of Florida is currently working to identify genes that structure such horses’ tendency to overreact. In the future, the identification of such genes could help selecting or breeding horses for the types of temperaments their owners prefer.
To better understand startle responses, the researchers equipped several horses with heart-rate monitors and let them loose in a round pen. Occasionally, they opened an umbrella quickly within the horses’ perceptual field and analyzed their behavior and heart rate during and after their initial startle reaction.
“We can’t read their minds,” said senior author Samantha Brooks, an associate professor of Equine Genetics at UF. “Their heart rate tells us what is going on inside that we cannot see from reading their body language alone. It was interesting to see the stories their heart rates told us.”
This experiment helped scientists identify two types of horses: one that was startled by the umbrella opening, had a spike in heart rate, and maintained a hyper-alert state, spending more time looking and moving away from the umbrella; and another that startled just as easily and experienced a spike in heart rate, but calmed quickly afterwards. While these animals were also startled by the stimulus, they did not go through the pattern of fear and avoidance as the other horses.
“Horses have adapted over thousands of years to live with people. Some of those changes include a reduction in startle response and are really helpful to better understand the horses we work with today,” Brooks explained.
By using these findings, the scientists plan to design a new study to differentiate the genetic components structuring how horses respond to perceived threats, in order to help owners find their right fit. For instance, while an easily spooked horse may not be the best choice for children learning to ride, it could be a good fit for high-energy “jobs” such as show jumping.
“Understanding each horse’s genetic makeup will help you understand the type of animal you need,” Brooks said. “If we learn early on what this animal’s natural tendencies are most likely to be, we can make educated decisions on training and future careers to give the horse the best shot to grow into their potential, rather than becoming a problem or danger.”
Moreover, clarifying a horse’s reaction to an uncomfortable situation could make a difference in transportation or veterinary practices too.
“It doesn’t matter if the horse is a racehorse, therapy animal or driving a carriage, an unplanned startle response is generally a problem. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of this. It might take us 10 years or more to really have a clear understanding, but it is worth the effort,” Brooks concluded.
The study is published in the journal Genes.
Horses, like many animals, do have a range of emotions that they can express, and these can often be seen through their behavior and body language. It’s important to remember that while we can observe and interpret these signs, we can’t fully understand a horse’s emotional experience in the same way we understand human emotions.
A relaxed horse with ears forward and a calm tail usually indicates a happy horse. A soft, gentle eye also suggests contentment. Happy horses often engage in social grooming with other horses and appear generally calm and at ease.
When a horse is scared, it might raise its head high, prick its ears forward, and widen its eyes. In some cases, a scared horse may also show the whites of its eyes. Horses are flight animals, so a fearful horse may also try to run away from whatever is causing its fear.
An angry or aggressive horse may pin its ears back flat against its head. It might also show its teeth, swish its tail, or even try to bite or kick. These are all warning signs that should be taken seriously to avoid injury.
Horses can also show signs of stress or anxiety. These may include pacing, excessive sweating, increased heart rate, or other signs of restlessness. They might also show repetitive behaviors known as stereotypies, such as cribbing (biting on fences or stalls) or weaving (swaying side to side).
Although it’s harder to identify than some of the other emotions, horses can also show signs of sadness or depression, particularly if they’re kept in poor conditions or are socially isolated. These may include lack of interest in surroundings, low energy, changes in eating or drinking habits, and generally appearing ‘down’.
Horses can show signs of relief, usually through sudden relaxation or a return to normal behaviors after a stressful event.
A horse showing curiosity will often have pricked ears, a high head, and a focused gaze. It may approach or inspect new objects, smells, or sounds with caution but interest.
These are just some examples of horse emotions, as interpreted through their behavior and body language. Understanding a horse’s emotions can be incredibly helpful in promoting good welfare and positive interactions.