Look around at a horse show and you’re bound to see one horse spooking at a porta-potty while another walks calmly by. Is it possible to help your horse behave more like the latter horse than the former? According to a recent Danish study, doing some at-home preparations could aid horses in staying calm when faced with new or potentially frightening objects.

Janne Winther Christensen, PhD, a research scientist at the faculty of agricultural sciences at Aarhus University in Tjele, Denmark, and colleagues recently completed a study in which they examined if "habituation" to new or frightening objects during training could horses respond to novel objects in a more relaxed manner.

Christensen and her team separated 30 1- and 2-year-old horses into two groups: one test group that was "habituated to a complex object, comprised of five simple objects of varying shape and color," and one control group that was not habituated to the object.

Then the team subjected the horses to two tests in which they monitored the animals’ behavior and heart rates (an elevated one indicated the horse was fearful):

The first experiment looked at whether the two groups of horses responded differently when exposed to the five simple objects that comprised the complex object, in addition to a new object; and

The second observed the horses’ reactions to a change in the objects’ order and location.

After reviewing the tests’ results, the research team found that the test horses "reacted significantly less towards objects which were previously part of the complex object," than did the control horses. Additionally, the team noted the test horses reacted more calmly when the objects were placed in different locations and when new objects were added.

Further, the team observed that unlike the control horses, "the test horses showed an increase in exploratory behavior" and no increase in heart rate when faced with the objects in new locations, "indicating that the horses were not frightened by these changes."

Christensen suggested, "Our … results indicate that by placing many objects around the arena and training the horse not to be afraid of these, the horse will also react less when a new object is (encountered)." She added that she currently uses this method to desensitize her own horse.

The study, "Object recognition and generalization during habituation in horses," was published in January in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The abstract is available online.