Improving Welfare for Stalled Horses with Selected Nature Sounds and Music

Researchers think certain sounds might reduce frustration behaviors in stalled horses.
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Playing nature sounds in your barn might make your horses feel more relaxed. | iStock

Researchers believe that nature sounds—such as running water, chirping birds, and a gentle breeze through tree leaves—might encourage horses to relax and chew forage. However, they might appear more frustrated than usual when listening to jazz music.

Eleven years ago British researchers found that horses in stalls seemed calmer when listening to country or classical music compared to jazz or rock. Today it seems there’s perhaps an even better sound for stalled horses: the sounds of nature.

“Sound enrichment may decrease the expression of frustration behavior overall, and nature sounds may be the optimal form of sound enrichment to promote naturalistic behaviors, such as foraging,” said Chloe Bolanos, BSc, an animal behavior intern in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis. Bolanos, who works under the leadership of Amy McLean, PhD, presented at the 2024 19th Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held March 14-16 in Cambridge, New Zealand.

Stalled horses often show signs of frustration, such as pawing or kicking, and some even express stereotypies—repetitive behaviors that don’t seem to have a purpose—such as crib-biting, windsucking, or stall weaving, Bolanos said. Enriching the stall environment with objects such as mirrors, fixed brushes, and toys can help reduce frustration, she said, but so might various sounds.

Bolanos and her fellow researchers tested the responses of six Warmblood horses to different kinds of prerecorded sounds: jazz, country, nature sounds, lullabies, and classical music. None of the recordings included singing or other vocals, and the team played the recordings and observed the horses for one hour twice a day for two weeks. They measured the horses’ time spent foraging, interacting with horses in nearby stalls, and showing frustration or other abnormal behaviors.

On the first and last days of the study, the horses had no sound enrichments, to create what scientists call a washout period to help serve as a control, McLean said. On the other days, horses heard one of the five sound types chosen randomly for that observation period.

On average the horses showed frustration behaviors more than twice as often when listening to jazz compared to the first day of the study when they heard no recordings, said Bolanos. The other recordings were associated with essentially the same amount of frustration behavior as that exhibited the first day.

During the jazz sessions the horses kicked more and were more aggressive with their neighbors, McLean added. Plus, the horses that cribbed did so more when jazz was playing. Even so, it’s possible the horses were reacting to that specific jazz playlist, she explained.

By contrast, when listening to nature sounds, the horses spent about 15% more time foraging than they did on Day 1, she said. Foraging time was about the same as Day 1 for all other sound treatments.

In general the horses showed far less frustration on the last day of the study—when no sound recordings were playing—than the first day of the study—which also involved no recordings. This suggests that two weeks of sound enrichment might be beneficial for the welfare of stalled horses, regardless of the sounds played.

“Horses that are stabled spend most of their day standing with little to no enrichment,” McLean said. “This may lead to the expression of frustration behaviors and other abnormal behaviors (that) can be used as indicators of past or present welfare issues.

“Frustration behavior expression was significantly decreased from pre-enrichment to post-enrichment, thus displaying that sound enrichment may be a tool to improve the behavioral welfare of stabled horses,” she added.

Further research on more genres of music and playlists within genres could lead to a better understanding of the effects of sounds on stabled horses and practical recommendations for horse owners, McLean added. “We are hoping at some point to test in (equine) hospital settings as well.”

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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