“The main difference between police horses and other horses is that these animals are trained to handle different type of conflicts, which can sometimes include violent interactions,” said Ivana Gabriela Schork, a biologist and PhD candidate at the University of Salford Manchester, in Salford, U.K.
Under natural conditions, horses have evolved to “avoid conflicts,” said Schork. “They will flee under a threat, not fight.
“In a working situation, this may not be possible, which ends up causing what is known as a behavioral conflict,” she continued. “So even if the horse may be able to physically endure the task, it does not necessarily mean that he can cope with it mentally.”
Police horses that are unable to deal with the stress caused by this kind of internal conflict could be at greater risk of welfare issues and behavioral problems, as well as health conditions such as colic, Schork said.
Schork and colleagues recently investigated the relationship between personality and abnormal behavior, as well as susceptibility to disease and welfare, among 46 police horses (all Brazilian Sport Horses averaging 10 years old) at the Regimento de Cavalaria Alferes Tiradentes, in Minas Gerais, Brazil.
The horses were housed in individual stalls they and fed six times a day (half concentrated feeds, half hay), Schork said. The researchers subjected the horses to food-related behavior tests, and they asked veterinarians and the horses’ riders to evaluate each horse’s personality via a questionnaire, which included 18 personality traits such as “confident,” “curious,” “playful,” “hardworking,” “insecure,” and “irritable.” They also performed a novel object test, in which horses were exposed to an object (usually a surprising or scary one) they’d never seen before and recorded the horses’ responses.
The researchers found that horses described as intelligent, curious, and playful were the most likely to express abnormal behaviors (such as stereotypies), Schork said. By contrast, the horses described mainly as passive, stubborn, and confident tended to cope better with the demands of police horse life, she said.
“If there are resources available, I would recommend trying to do a personality assessment with the horses before they go into training,” said Schork. “This would give a first insight into how the individuals respond to the environment and would allow the police force to select those individuals whose behavior is best-suited to the task they will perform.
“Regarding better welfare, in general, welfare is based on giving individuals as much choice and control as they can have over their environment,” she continued. “Giving the horses opportunities to express natural behaviors such as grazing and social interactions and respecting their limits while working, both physically and mentally, would improve their quality of life.”
Schork acknowledged that the study focused on one country’s police horse culture, so results could vary in other countries.
“Since there is no specific legislation for working animals in Brazil or guidelines for the use of horses by the police, the animals are kept in a way that is cost-effective, which does not always benefit the individuals,” she said. “It is important to remember that different countries have different practice styles and regulations concerning animal use, which can contribute to a better or poorer quality of life.”
Even so, regardless of the country, the challenge of police horses in the working environment and their need for “choice” in their management are universal, Schork added. Greater attention to police horse needs, as well as to the personalities best-suited for this kind of work, could lead to better police horse welfare across the globe, she said.
The study, “Personality, abnormal behaviour, and health: An evaluation of the welfare of police horses,” was published in PLOS One.