There's a new term that describes the actions of our horses in response to our unclear cues or handling: "conflict behavior." Horses showing conflict behavior might buck, rear, toss their heads, gape their mouths, or try to escape their handlers, to name a few examples, and they might get labeled with adjectives such as "stubborn" or "naughty."

But just exactly what kind of behavior is considered "conflict" behavior, as well as how severe it is, varies from one horse professional to another, according to recent research presented at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES 2010) in Uppsala, Sweden, on July 31.

In a study led by Sara Nyman, DVM, PhD, researcher at the Department of Research and Education of Flyinge (Sweden), experienced trainers, dressage judges, and equine veterinarians were asked to evaluate horses' reactive behavior to tight-reined lunging. The horses had been filmed in an experimental setting, and seven short clips from the resulting films were played for the horse professionals. The professionals were asked to describe any signs of mental stress they found—primarily gaping, resistance, tongue movements, head tossing, and rearing—and give them severity grades of 0 to 7.

Nyman and her colleagues found that the responses varied widely within each category (trainers, judges, or veterinarians) and also from one category to another. In particular, the experienced trainers were more accepting of conflict behavior, rating the severity of the negative actions significantly lower than the other two groups did, Nym