How Horses’ Ear Direction Affects Jumping Success

Can a horse’s ears predict a his responsiveness to a task such as jumping? Researchers found out.

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Ears pricked forward, you know your horse is alert and attentive. Ears pinned back, and he’s clearly not a happy camper. Humans have long learned to recognize signs of behavior, pain, and attitude in horses based on the direction of the animal’s ears. But can the ears also predict a horse’s responsiveness to a task such as jumping?

Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and colleagues hypothesized that "a horse with his ears directed forward has his attention focused on the obstacle and, thus, has a better chance of clearing the obstacle successfully." She presented the preliminary results of their study during a poster session at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

"Because ear orientation can be indicative of a horse’s focus, it is often used as one of the primary body language cues that humans can easily monitor, assess, and respond appropriately to," she said. "This makes it a useful tool during training and riding, as the human can evaluate where the horse’s attention is, if he is uncomfortable or irritated, and whether or not his success at a specific task changes depending on the orientation of the ear."

Little research, however, exists assessing ear direction and a horse’s response to a rider or environment. So Merkies and colleagues evaluated videos of 17 horses and riders attempting a 22-obstacle Grand Prix course. The horses were primarily Warmblood breeds, and the jumps were a combination of verticals and oxers

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Alexandra Beckstett, a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as assistant editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse. She was the managing editor of The Horse for nearly 14 years and is now editorial director of EquiManagement and My New Horse, sister publications of The Horse.

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