horse's facial expression at mounting block
Reading a horse’s facial expression might help you determine whether being led to the mounting block causes them stress.

According to results from a new study, a group of recreational riding school horses tended to show signs of stress in their faces when approaching the mounting block. This suggests some horses have negative associations with the mounting block, possibly related to unpleasant mounting and/or riding experiences, said Katarzyna Olczak, PhD, in the Department of Horse Breeding at the National Research Institute of Animal Production, in Balice, Poland.

“Our results indicated that the horses (in our study) standing next to the mounting block show signs of stress and/or discomfort,” Olczak said during the 2022 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Aug. 9-12 in Hartpury, U.K. “It could be that mounting by inexperienced people may be unpleasant for horses, leading to negative associations with the mounting block. Horse riding instructors should pay more attention to horse-friendly mounting and riding to ensure good welfare of working horses.”

Olczak and her fellow researcher, undergraduate student Natalia Łazarczyk, at the University of Agriculture in Krakow, Poland, took multiple facial photographs of 11 school horses of the local Hucul breed, aged 6 to 12, as they were led to the mounting block and as they stood next to it. They photographed each horse in two such scenarios: with and without a saddle.

Using the Horse Grimace Scale (HGS) originally developed by Italian scientists, the researchers determined facial expression scores for each horse in each situation based primarily on the presence of lowered ears, orbital tightening, tensed chewing muscles, tensed muzzle, strained and dilated nostrils, and eyelid covering more than half the eye.

To validate their results, the team had two independent observers evaluate the photos.

The observers found that, between being led to the block and standing next to the block, horses’ facial expression scores changed dramatically from representing a nonstressed state to a stressed state, Olczak said.

Olczak said she found the findings surprisingly accurate. “This is the first time I see such clear results (in a scientific behavior study),” she said.

Whether the horse had a saddle on didn’t matter, said Olczak. Either way, the horses showed well-defined changes in their facial expressions before and after arriving at the mounting block.

“There was a slight difference (with and without the saddle), but it was not significant,” she added.

What clearly mattered, however, was the presence of the mounting block itself, said Olczak. “You can see that just standing next to the mounting block without a rider present already influences their facial expressions.”

More research could help determine the factors affecting these negative emotional states associated with the mounting block, she said.