Do Professionals Judge Horse Behavior Like Scientists?

Recent study results yielded mixed results: Equestrian professionals, on the whole, appear to have an appreciation for welfare-friendly behavior in the show ring, but they disagree with scientists when it comes to head and neck positions.
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Do dressage judges see horses' behavior the same way a scientist would? Recent study results yielded mixed results: Equestrian professionals do, on the whole, have an appreciation for welfare-friendly behavior in the ring, but they disagree with scientists when it comes to head and neck position.

“There is public perception of ridden horse behavior that seems to view the nasal plane behind the vertical and overflexing the horse’s neck as positive,” said Carol Hall, PhD, researcher and principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, in the U.K. “Other research has shown that horses are judged as having ‘better ridability’ if they have their nasal planes behind the vertical. And this is despite the guidelines of the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI).”

In Hall's recent study, which she presented at the 2014 International Society for Equitation Science, held Aug. 6-9 in Bredsten, Denmark, she found that scientific stress parameter readings are in line with the FEI guidelines for head and neck positions. Horses showed higher salivary cortisol levels and higher eye temperatures—both indicators of stress—when in a hyperflexed (behind the vertical) position.

Even so, Hall cautioned that these “stress” results could be linked to physical instead of mental stress: “It could just be that they’re working harder. We can’t really make any direct conclusions about mental state based on these data

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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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