Happy Horses Need Happy Homes

I’m back in the saddle so to speak, 5 weeks into an Equine Guelph course after taking a term off. Relevant to this course, Management of the Equine Environment, as well as Behaviour and Welfare, a Q&A style article from The Horse popped up in my Facebook news feed, “Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home”. The person asking the question explains how differently her horse and the horses of friends have behaved when housed at various facilities and questions whether studies have been done on what horses prefer in a housing situation.

While the author, a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, isn’t aware of any such studies, she presents a range of factors that may contribute to a particular horse’s experience at any given facility, things that may be imperceptible to us, like electric currents or noise, subtle changes in diet, social dynamics (of horses and humans), management style, or undetected neglect/abuse, which may also stem from a past experience at a previous facility.

The article ends with an anecdote about horses that are surrendered to the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania, explaining how after a couple of weeks the horses are normally in a state of contentment. It is the last line that resonates most for me, and advocates for as natural a method of equine management as possible, which is admittedly a challenge for most, particularly those of us living in areas with snowy winters, as pasture is not available year-round.

No hay, no grain, no supplements, no feeding schedule, no stalls, no indoor arena, no electricity, and often no close human-animal interaction for days. Just good grass, water, natural shade, and shelter.

That is my ideal horse management scenario.

McDonnel, S. 2019. “Happy and Unhappy Horses at Home.” The Horse Jun 6, 2019. Retrieved from https://thehorse.com/14106/happy-and-unhappy-horses-at-home/

Ethogram of the Ridden Horse Part 3: Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation

The training of horses relies on their tractability and the ability to extinguish or overshadow their innate inter- and intra-species behaviours, such as flight and sexual behaviours (McDonnell, 2003).  In the process, desired innate and learned behaviours are shaped and modified to suit human desires for sport, show, performance, and leisure, training horses to perform tasks that are in opposition to their innate preferences (McGreevy & McLean, 2007). Two notable examples include jumping obstacles they would otherwise avoid and the tolerance of a human (some may say ‘predator’) on their back (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009; McGreevy & McLean, 2007; McGreevy, Oddie, Burton & McLean, 2009; Starling et al., 2016).

Horses have not evolved to be ridden, nor have humans evolved to ride them, which may explain the high numbers of casualties from equestrian pursuits (Goodwin, 2009; McGreevy & McLean, 2007; McGreevy, Oddie, Burton & McLean, 2009; Starling et al., 2016). Statistically, equestrians experience more injuries per hour than do motorcyclists, with the majority of injuries involving the head, spine (Papachristos, Edwards, Dowrick & Gosling, 2014), and chest (Davidson, Blostein, Schrotenboer, Sloffer & VandenBerg, 2015). In 2009 there were an estimated 78,499 reported equestrian-related injuries in the United States. While the majority of those injured (67,196) were treated without hospitalization, 11,250 equestrians did require hospitalization, with an undisclosed portion of those seriously injured dying (Davidson et al., 2015).

The training and riding of horses involves isolating them from conspecifics and controlling their physical movement (Starling et al., 2016), working in direct opposition to their inherent need for friends, forage, and locomotion. Advances in recognizing signs of conflict, distress, fear, and pain in the ridden horse can make equestrian activities safer for everyone involved, primarily the horse and rider. Conflict behaviours occur when the horse is exhibiting signs of physical and/or mental discomfort. This typically happens where there are two or more competing triggers for separate behaviours that cannot be expressed, i.e. when a horse is being ridden away from a group of horses it is ‘motivated’ to stay with the herd and simultaneously ‘motivated’ to respond to the rider’s signal (Hall & Heleski, 2017).

However, it is thought that signs of irritation and frustration in the horse may indicate more than just competing motivations (Hall & Heleski, 2017). They may also be indicative of pain avoidance and escape behaviours, both of which are considered conflict behaviours in response to musculoskeletal pain caused by the presence of a rider or problems with equipment, physical issues that may not be noticeable when the horse is lunged or exercised in hand (Dyson, 2017a; Dyson, 2017b; Mullard et al, 2017).

Qualitative Behavioural Assessment

Qualitative behavioural assessment (QBA) is a useful tool to evaluate a horse’s attitudinal and emotional response to a specific event, enabling an assessment of the horse’s mental state during competition, or how the presence of humans influence how a horse behaves. These assessments take into account the animal’s movement and posture and describe them in terms of demeanor; ‘relaxed’, ‘content’, anxious’. The horse’s body language is interpreted as a direct reflection of its mental state. However, in applying this method of data collection, individual observers are permitted to incorporate what is known as Free Choice Profiling, which allows them to develop and apply their own descriptors to score the behavioural expressions of the animals (Fleming et al., 2013). This aspect of QBA works in direct opposition of the need to develop and use robust and valid objective measures to methodologically collect data and foster reporting that will advance equitation science for the benefit of both horse and human (Pierard et al. 2015).

Physiological Measures

Physiological measures of heart rate, cortisol levels, and tension or pressure from equipment and rider cues have traditionally been used to assess welfare in the ridden horse. However, there is increasing debate around the validity of heart rate and cortisol measures and whether it is possible to adequately discriminate between the effects of physical exercise versus emotional experience (excitement/arousal/fear/anxiety) of the horse in relation to the findings from physiological data (Hall et al., 2014; Hall & Heleski, 2017; Waran & Randle, 2017).

In a study involving 12 equestrian professionals and 10 horses, Hall et al. (2014) investigated the correlation between observed behaviours and physiological measures of salivary cortisol and eye temperature. They found there was little correlation between the behaviour assessments and the physiological evidence, illustrating that further evaluation of both methods is needed to ensure their accuracy as tools to effectively assess stress and behaviour of ridden horses.

It has also been suggested that the techniques and equipment used to sample physiological data are invasive and may directly affect the results (Waran and Randle; 2017). Figure 1 serves to illustrate the complexities involved in accurately monitoring various pressure or tension points, and the number of gadgets required.

Figure 1

Furthermore, heart rate monitors, electromyography, infrared thermography, pressure algometry, accelerometers, gyroscopes (Randle et al., 2017), thermal cameras (Hall et al., 2014), pressure and tension gauges, et cetera used by equitation scientists are both costly, and not readily available to the average equestrian.

Equine Social Behaviour

A model widely espoused by practitioners of natural horsemanship, there is considerable debate about the degree of relevance equine social behaviour has in relation to the ethogram of the ridden horse. On the one hand, Hall & Heleski (2017) and McGreevy et al. (2009) suggest that the equine social ethogram may be beneficial to the interpretation of ridden horse behaviour. Yet they simultaneously question the validity of horse-horse interactions and communication as a model for horse-human interactions.

While a comprehensive equine ethogram aids in the understanding of horse-horse interactions and there is an inherent human desire to look for the existence of analogues in human-horse interactions, such analogues should be applied with caution. The impact and relevance of analogues of the equine ethogram in common equestrian and management techniques should be used and interpreted carefully to avoid connotations of anthropomorphism and ascribing the horse with a level of intention or motivation that exceeds its cognitive abilities (McGreevy & McLean, 2007; McGreevy et al., 2009). Furthermore, while there may be evidence of human-horse, horse-human interactions that are analogous to social interactions between horses, these do not translate when the horse is ridden. Difficulties in equitation are experienced by both horse and rider due to the inability to integrate the equine sociogram into riding techniques (Goodwin et al., 2009).

Rideability

Rideability assesses both the comfort level of the rider and the degree of ease with which a horse can be ridden. The responses of the horse to signals from the rider are evaluated, which often directly correlate to the experience of the rider, since the horse should be under their control or direction at all times. Assessing behaviour in the ridden horse is complex, as the actions of the rider and resulting effect on the horse’s behaviour must be assessed simultaneously. This method is primarily subjective and dependent on who is observing the behaviour – judge, rider, impartial observer – and how they interpret the observations. Scoring may include tail-swishing, position and movement of the rider’s hands, shying, and gait changes. The only truly objective measure is that of rein tension. Overall, the behaviours consistent with a high score of ‘rideability’ are unclear (Hall & Heleski, 2017).

A common theme with all of the above methods is a focus on detecting conflict behaviours associated with competing motivations, tension and stress, with limited mention of assessing whether the horse is experiencing pain associated with the presence of equipment and/or weight of a rider. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the need for and development of a comprehensive ethogram of the ridden horse that is applicable across a range of scenarios and disciplines, a method that can be used by anyone to evaluate conflict, stress and irritation, and detect pain in horses across a wide range of equestrian pursuits (Hall & Heleski, 2017; Hall et al., 2013; Mullard et al., 2017).

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: The Facial Expression Ethogram

References

Davidson, S.B., Blostein, P.A., Schrotenboer, A., Sloffer, C.A. & S.L. VandenBerg. (2015). Ten Years of Equine-Related Injuries: Severity and Implications for Emergency Physicians. The Journal of Emergency Medicine 49(5) (2015) 605-612.

Dyson, S. (2017a). Facial Expressions Research – is your horse trying to tell you he’s in pain? Apr 28, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKzwPrIShTY

Dyson, S. (2017b). Facial Expressions Study – Developing and Applying the Ethogram. Jun 1, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=CsyAggivCDA 

Fleming, P.A., Paisley, C.L., Barnes, A.L. & F. Wemelsfelder. (2013). Application of Qualitative Behavioural Assessment to horses during an endurance ride. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 144 (2013) 80-88.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & A. McLean. (2009). How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques. The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hall, C. & C. Heleski. (2017). The role of the ethogram in equitation science. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 102-110.

Hall, C., Huws, N. White, C. Taylor, E. Owen, H. & P. McGreevy. (2013). Assessment of ridden horse behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8 (2013) 62-73.

Hall, C., Kay, R. & K. Yarnell. (2014). Assessing ridden horse behaviour: Professional judgement and physiological measures. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 9 (2014) 22-29.

McDonnell, S. (2003). A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: The Equid Ethogram. Lexington, KY: The Blood-Horse, Inc.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2007). Roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2 (2007) 108-118.

McGreevy, P., Oddie, C., Burton, F. & A. McLean. (2009). The horse-human dyad: Can we align horse training and handling activities with the equid social ethogram? The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 12-18.

Mullard, J., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D. & S. Dyson. (2017). Development of an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses (FEReq). Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 18 (2017) 7-12.

Papachristo, A., Edwards, E., Dowrick, A. and C. Gosling. (2014). A description of the severity of equestrian-related injuries (ERIs) using clinical parameters and patient-reported outcomes. International Journal of the Care of the Injured 45 (2014) 1484-1487.

Pierard, M., Hall, C., König von Borstel, U., Averis, A., Hawson, L., McLean, A., Nevison, C., Visser, K., & P. McGreevy. (2015). Evolving protocols for research in equitation science. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 10 (2015) 255-256.

Randle, H., Steenbergen, M., Robert, K. & A. Hemmings. (2017). The use of the technology in equitation science: A panacea or abductive science. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 57-73.

Starling, M., McLean, A., & P. McGreevy. (2016). The Contribution of Equitation Science to Minimising Horse-Related Risks to Humans. Animals 2016, 6, 15; doi:10.3390/ani6030015

Waran, N. & H. Randle. (2017). What we can measure, we can manage: The importance of using robust welfare indicators in Equitation Science. in Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 74-81.

 

Ethogram of the Ridden Horse Part 2: The Facial Expression Ethogram

“If a measure is to be useful as a welfare indicator it must be valid (meaningful in relation to animal welfare), reliable (produce consistent results when used by different observers/scorers) and feasible (practical for contemporaneous assessment in the field)” (Waran and Randle, 2017, p.75).

The recently developed facial expression ethogram of ridden horses can aid in the early detection of lameness and low-grade musculoskeletal problems across the board, from the backyard pony to the elite performance horse (Dyson, 2017a; Dyson, 2017b; Mullard et al., 2017). One of the goals of the project is to bring people’s awareness to the possibility that changes in facial expressions may very well be a manifestation of pain. If owners are aware of this, the hope is that they will seek advice from a veterinarian before the underlying problem turns into an advanced issue that is more difficult to resolve (Dyson, 2017a). The observational methods can be readily taught and made available to all equestrians – owners, riders, trainers, veterinarians – who may not know how to recognize signs of pain in the facial expressions of their horses (Dyson, 2017; Dyson et al., 2018).

The low/no technology nature of these observational methods removes barriers associated with the collection and analysis of physiological measures, enabling adoption by the broader equestrian community. The early detection of pain in a horse provides an opportunity for early diagnosis and treatment, and can prevent a problem from escalating to a point where the horse is experiencing reduced welfare or an unsafe situation arises for the rider or handler (Mullard et al., 2017; Waran & Randle, 2017).

Motivations to develop the ethogram

It has been well documented that horses exhibit changes in their facial expressions when experiencing pain or discomfort associated with colic (Dyson, 2017a). Changes in behaviour and facial expressions have also been observed when horses are ridden, which is likely a manifestation of pain related to low-grade lameness or a musculoskeletal problem. However, owners and riders are generally not very good at detecting low-grade lameness and are slow to notice physical problems that are compromising their horse’s performance and have a tendency to label horses as ‘naughty’. Alternatively, trainers place blame on the riders. Either way, the possibility that the horse may be experiencing physical discomfort is completely overlooked (Dyson, 2017a, Mullard et al., 2017). “In a survey of 506 sports horses in normal work and presumed to be sound, 47% were overtly lame either in hand and/or ridden or had other pain-related gait abnormalities (Dyson et al., 2018, p.47).

Developing the Ethogram

In the first part of their endeavor to create an ethogram of the ridden horse, Sue Dyson (2017b) and her colleague studied numerous photographs of both lame and sound horses to develop the markers of facial expressions for the ethogram. In order to show it would be useful, they set out to demonstrate that a number of different individuals could apply the ethogram in a consistent way. They assembled a team of 14 people made up of vets, horse owners, instructors, and gave them a training manual with descriptions of every single marker in the facial expressions ethogram of the ridden horse accompanied by a lecture to introduce the concept and procedure. Participants were given a series of photos of 30 horse’s heads and asked to apply the ethogram to each of the individual photographs.

Upon observing some anomalies in the interpretation of the ethogram, it was revisited and changes were made before proceeding with a test on a larger group of different horses. Results were statistically analyzed to determine consistency in the application of the newly developed ethogram, indicating a high degree of consistency in the interpretation of the photographs, proving that it can be applied accurately by a range of people from different professional and nonprofessional equestrian backgrounds (Dyson, 2017b).

Applying the Ethogram

The second part of the study was designed to see if by using photographs of the heads of the horses, both lame and sound, whether or not the two groups could be differentiated based on facial features alone. A pain score was developed for each marker of the ethogram. For example, when looking at ear position if both ears are forward, a score of  0 would be given (normal), whereas if both ears are back, that would be a score of 3 (most likely an indicator of pain). Scoring was done for each facial feature to develop a pain score for each anatomical area which could then be tallied to produce a total pain score for each head. Statistical analysis was applied and results indicated that there was a highly significant difference in the pain score in lame versus sound horses. To support the findings, a small portion of the lame horses were administered nerve blocks. These horses were photographed both before and after the nerve blocks had been administered to observe whether or not the pain scores changed and to determine whether it was in fact pain from lameness that was causing the change in facial expression (Dyson, 2017b).

The next part of the study, which is currently in development, involves assessments of whole horses by video. Dyson and her colleagues are looking at all aspects of behaviour (facial, body, and gait) in both sound and lame horses, and timing actions, such as how long the ears are in a specific position, tail movement, head movement, and reluctance to move forward in response to a  rider’s cues. The significant markers are being identified and modified for accuracy. When complete, the ethogram will serve as a valuable tool to evaluate pain scores and differences in pain scores between lame and sound horses (Dyson, 2017b; Dyson et al., 2018).

A complete ethogram of the ridden horse vs. other methods of behavioural interpretation

Traditionally, evaluations of the training event, equipment used, rider actions and resulting performance and mental state of the horse have been observed to develop a record of behavioural observations in the ridden horse as an indication of welfare. Specific behaviours associated with pain, discomfort, anxiety, fear, and distress have been assessed by trainers and judges. However, there has been a high degree of subjectivity and inconsistency, as illustrated in Part 3: Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation. A consistent approach across disciplines has the potential to significantly improve the welfare of the ridden horse.

Working toward the visual assessment of pain, fear, and stress across the spectrum of equestrian events, it is perhaps more prudent to focus on methods that could be learned and applied by the everyday equestrian; methods that are not dependent on technology and instead focus on teaching people how to observe and interpret facial expressions, posture, gait changes, and tail positions of the horse that are indicative of pain when under saddle. If the goal is to have a more robust application of the ethogram, technology such as that frequently used in the collection of physiological data may be a barrier.

Part 1: Introduction

Part 3: Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation

References

Dyson, S. (2017a). Facial Expressions Research – is your horse trying to tell you he’s in pain? Apr 28, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKzwPrIShTY

Dyson, S. (2017b). Facial Expressions Study – Developing and Applying the Ethogram. Jun 1, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=CsyAggivCDA

Dyson, S., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D., & J. Mullard. (2017). Can the presence of musculoskeletal pain be determined from the facial expressions of ridden horses (FEReq)? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 19 (2017) 78-89.

Dyson, S. Berger, J., Ellis, A.D. and J. Mullard. (2018). Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research 23 (2018) 47-57.

Mullard, J., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D. & S. Dyson. (2017). Development of an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses (FEReq). Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 18 (2017) 7-12.

Waran, N. & H. Randle. (2017). What we can measure, we can manage: The importance of using robust welfare indicators in Equitation Science. in Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 74-81.

Image

Karina Bech Gleerup. Retrieved from https://science-equine.com/128-behavior/social-behavior/3369-chronic-back-pain-and-aggression-in-horses

Ethogram of the Ridden Horse Part 1: Introduction

Equitation science and applied ethology, that is, the scientific study of horse behaviour in the human domain (McGreevy & McLean, 2007), can greatly reduce risks related to human-horse interactions while simultaneously enhancing equine welfare with an effective, evidence-based approach to training and riding based on the natural and adaptive behaviours of horses, their specific behavioural needs and preferences, communication, cognitive abilities, and motivation (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & Mclean, 2009; Hall et. al, 2013; McGreevy & McLean, 2007; Starling, McLean & McGreevy, 2016).

An important achievement in equitation science is the anticipated development of the complete ethogram of the ridden horse, which will detect and score the presence and degree of pain experienced by a horse under saddle. Significant progress has been made on the first part of this, the facial expression ethogram, which focuses on ear position, eyes, nose, mouth, and head position, with the full body ethogram expected to be complete in 2018 (Dyson, 2017a; Dyson, 2017b; Dyson, Berger, Ellis & Mullard, 2017; Dyson, Berger, Ellis & Mullard, 2018;  Mullard, Berger, Ellis & Dyson, 2017).

Part 2, The Facial Expression Ethogram, focusses on current work in the development of a facial expression ethogram of ridden horses. Part 3, Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation, presents an overview of the methods traditionally used to detect pain, stress, or fear in a horse under saddle, and their shortcomings to illustrate why the ethogram of the ridden horse is such an important development.

What is an Ethogram?

An ethogram is a species-specific catalogue of all of the observed behaviours of an animal and the social, environmental, and other external factors that influence them (Hall & Heleski, 2017; McDonnell, 2003). In the case of domestic horses, these external factors include management, training, and riding by humans.

Two key publications on the equine ethogram are Sue McDonnell’s A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: The Equid Ethogram (2003) and G.H. Waring’s Horse Behaviour (2003). Waring’s book includes a comprehensive list of 143 distinct horse behaviours and references to the early ethologists who developed the equine ethogram (Hall & Heleski, 2017; Waring, 2003). Combined, McDonnell and Waring examine 8 main categories of behaviours and a series of sub-categories, as listed in Table 1. The books contain illustrations of the most common specific behaviours observed in horses and referred to in scientific literature (McDonnell, 2003; Waring, 2003). However, an ethogram of the ridden horse has not been available until now.

Table 1. The Equine Ethogram: Main Behaviours & SubcategoriesTable 1*italics indicate behaviours specific to Waring’s text.  (Source: McDonnell, 2003; Waring, 2003)

Components of the ethogram applied to equitation have primarily been used to record, evaluate, and assess the welfare of the ridden horse with a focus on stress behaviours relative to specific topics of research. For example, in 13 studies of horse behaviour presented by Hall & Heleski (2017), only 6 authors referred to an ethogram, citing a total of 11 ethograms between them, indicating a high degree of subjectivity in the study of equine behaviour and conflict between horse and rider. Studies to date have also been limited by low numbers of participants and in some cases, overlapping participants, with the range of behaviours included dependent on the aim of the study (Hall & Heleski, 2003; Pierard et al., 2015). Table 2 presents an overview of such studies since 2006, none of which distinctly indicate the detection of pain in the ridden horse as a focal point of the research.

Table 2. Studies in Equitation Science Involving Ridden Horse since 2006Table 2(Source: Hall & Heleski, 2017; Pierard et al., 2015)

Part 2: The Facial Expression Ethogram

Part 3: Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation

References

Dyson, S. (2017a). Facial Expressions Research – is your horse trying to tell you he’s in pain? Apr 28, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKzwPrIShTY

Dyson, S. (2017b). Facial Expressions Study – Developing and Applying the Ethogram. June 1, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=CsyAggivCDA

Dyson, S., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D., & J. Mullard. (2017). Can the presence of musculoskeletal pain be determined from the facial expressions of ridden horses (FEReq)? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 19 (2017) 78-89.

Dyson, S. Berger, J., Ellis, A.D. and J. Mullard. (2018). Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research 23 (2018) 47-57.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & A. McLean. (2009). How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques. The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hall, C. & C. Heleski. (2017). The role of the ethogram in equitation science. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 102-110.

Hall, C., Huws, N. White, C. Taylor, E. Owen, H. & P. McGreevy. (2013). Assessment of ridden horse behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8 (2013) 62-73.

Hall, C., Kay, R. & K. Yarnell. (2014). Assessing ridden horse behaviour: Professional judgement and physiological measures. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 9 (2014) 22-29.

McDonnell, S. (2003). A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: The Equid Ethogram. Lexington, KY: The Blood-Horse, Inc.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2007). Roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2 (2007) 108-118.

Mullard, J., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D. & S. Dyson. (2017). Development of an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses (FEReq). Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 18 (2017) 7-12.

Pierard, M., Hall, C., König von Borstel, U., Averis, A., Hawson, L., McLean, A., Nevison, C., Visser, K., & P. McGreevy. (2015). Evolving protocols for research in equitation science. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 10 (2015) 255-256.

Starling, M., McLean, A., & P. McGreevy. (2016). The Contribution of Equitation Science to Minimising Horse-Related Risks to Humans. Animals 2016, 6, 15; doi:10.3390/ani6030015

Image

Jurga, F. (2017). Sue Dyson: Double video explanation of equine ethogram for recognizing lameness and pain. The Hoof Blog June 01, 2017. Retrieved from  https://hoofcare.blogspot.ca/2017/06/sue-dyson-equine-ethogram-facial-expression-lameness-video.html

 

 

Enquire, Reflect, Engage & Advocate

The discussions in the current unit of Advanced Equine Behaviour, nay, in the entire course, have been fascinating and incredibly insightful. A statement which holds true for every course I’ve taken with Equine Guelph. While I don’t have a horse of my own, nor am I currently leasing, I do aspire to adopt one within the next year or two, once I’m settled in Ontario.

The truth is, I’m a city girl, living in the heart of Vancouver, so apart from the stables I’ve ridden at in the past few years, I can’t comment too much on prevalent welfare issues in my community, breed, discipline simply because it doesn’t apply. Growing up, my family was very far removed from the world of competitions, performance, disciplines et cetera and simply rode and spent time with our horses because that was our passion. In fact, when first presented with the terms hunter-jumperdressage and hacking a few years ago, I admittedly had to turn to Google to learn what they meant.

At the beginning of the Equine Welfare and Equine Industry courses, students were encouraged to reflect on their experiences with horses, the role(s) we play within the equine industry and our goals for the future. At the end, we were asked to revisit this and note if and how our values, perspectives, and ideas had shifted. I love these reflexive moments and find them to be of tremendous value! They force me to really think about how my understanding of and relationship with horses has changed. The courses I’m taking this term have served to reinforce and build upon things I have learned in the previous 4. It’s been a fascinating, informative journey so far! One that has given me a great deal of knowledge to apply when I finally have a horse of my own. It has also given me insight into the type of role I see myself playing in the industry.

Re-entering the horse world after several years away, taking riding lessons from someone other than my mother for the very first time in my life, at the age of 36, participating in a number of horsemanship classes to brush up on my knowledge and skills, and leasing someone else’s horse, was a series of exciting and sometimes challenging experiences. There were also some eye-opening moments along the way. One of the biggest surprises was how differently the three stables I’ve ridden at are managed. They differ vastly in terms of housing, turn-out, etc. Having observed some clear signs of distress in several horses at one of the stables, I quietly wondered about the rationale behind their management practices. I later learned that these practices, although somewhat foreign to me, are quite common.

Anthropomorphism is also quite prevalent, which, while often harmless, can have some serious welfare implications. Every instructor I’ve had in these past few years (3 in total), as well as my mother, were guilty of saying things like “don’t let the horse get away with that”, “kick him harder”, “make him listen”, “show her who’s boss” – expressions I have come to understand are instances of anthropomorphism and a misunderstanding of why horses perform, or fail to perform, as expected. It’s obvious to me now that timing, consistency, and application of cues is of the utmost importance in training and riding. Something I became more aware of as I began to ride/lease horses that were constantly ridden by different people and exhibited dulled responses and perhaps a degree of learned helplessness resulting from the inconsistent application of cues amongst riders, myself included.

Over the past 14 months, I’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into a number of issues. Of particular interest have been topics related to shoeing, blanketing, natural horsemanship, anthropomorphism, barrier frustration, imprint training, wobbler syndrome, equitation science, and learning theory. These last two topics are of particular interest to me.

Understanding and incorporating learning theory and the principles of equitation science into all levels of horse training and management has indispensable value for everyone involved in the equine industry, humans and horses alike. With a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, perception and learning processes, we can develop and apply more species-appropriate methods to the management and training of horses. Strides made in recognizing and working within these parameters and understanding the behavioural and health effects of housing and training will undoubtedly improve other areas of horse health and welfare.

My classmates and I are clearly all in agreement that the welfare of the horse should be of the utmost concern to anyone involved in the industry. As has been discussed on numerous occasions in this course over the past 8+ weeks, I find myself wondering once more, how do we influence this and change people’s ingrained and, in their mind’s adequate/justified/appropriate handling and management styles? As has been raised by a classmate, how do we broadcast the importance of proper care to a wider audience in a way that is engaging and effective?

In the next post, I’ll reflect on some of the key things I’ve learned in the Equine Health & Disease Prevention course.

The Smiling Horse, The Lazy Horse & The Misbehaving Horse

an·thro·po·mor·phism: the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to an animal or object.

It is important to distinguish between two types of anthropomorphism. One is fairly innocent and may merely be used as a way to relate to animals, that is, the projection of what may be perceived by some as being strictly human emotional states (or actions) onto an animal. While the other has the potential to be quite harmful and involves the projection of reasoned thought and intention to an animal.

Here are some examples.

Do Animals Experience Emotions?

The short answer is, yes. Most mammals share a similar basic brain structure, which implies they can fully experience emotion. However, non-human mammals lack the large frontal lobe that is unique to humans, the area of the brain responsible for critical and analytical thinking, i.e. animals are not capable of reasoned or intentional thought.

Emotional states of contentment, excitement, agitation, fear, anxiety, depression, et cetera, on the other hand, are clearly observable in animals. Where the line of anthropomorphism is crossed is perhaps when alternative language is used. When animals are described with words that may be perceived as being more human-centric, words like mad, happy/joyful, sad instead of agitated, content, depressed.

The Smiling Horse

A very common and harmless example of the projection of human behaviour onto horses is the misinterpretation of the flehmen response as a smile. No, when a horse curls its upper lip and shows its teeth it is not smiling or being silly! As much as we’d like to think that’s the case, what is actually happening is the horse is responding to pheromones produced by another horse or possibly a human, or a novel scent. The vomeronasal (olfactory) organ is located in the upper palate of all animals. When a horse curls its lip, it is taking in more air to direct to the vomeronasal organ to identify the scent.

The Lazy Horse

Examples of potentially dangerous or harmful instances of anthropomorphism abound! The human tendency to attribute horses with more advanced mental abilities than they possess is quite common and potentially dangerous. To illustrate, I’ll begin with an example that occurred with a horse I used to lease.

When I began the lease, the horse’s owner asked me to do some groundwork with him in the round-pen, warm-up exercises to make sure he was calm prior to riding. He wasn’t an overly energetic or excitable horse by any means, but he was kept in a stall that was much too small for him at the time and had limited turnout. As a result, he tended to have a bit of pent-up energy when taken out of the stall.

I was warned that he could be stubborn and lazy and sometimes didn’t want to do his warm-up. I was told to keep at himmake him listen and show him who’s boss. This carried over to riding as well. There were times when I could barely get the horse to walk, never mind trot or canter. At the time, it never occurred to me that the problem was my improper communication and cues, rather than the horse’s perceived stubbornness or laziness.

It wasn’t until I read the book Equitation Science by Paul McGreevy & Andrew McLean a couple of years ago that I began to properly understand what was actually going on. Both anthropomorphism and equitation science have also been prevalent topics in several of the courses I’ve taken in Equine Studies through the University of Guelph.

This human tendency to place blame on the horse and attribute it with a motivation or reluctance to work is, unfortunately, ingrained in the horse world.

Once I became aware of this, I asked more questions of the horse’s owner, about how she applied her cues, vocalizations, et cetera, and problem-solved with the horse. I also read a lot more about learning theory. It helped to a degree. Part of the issue with this particular horse was simply that he was too big for me. He was a 17h draught-cross and was quite broad across the back. I am far more comfortable on a more slender riding horse, preferably in the 14.5 to 15.5h range. Surely my comfort level also had a negative effect on my riding and ability to apply clear and consistent cues.

The Misbehaving Horse

A horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number of reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse was most likely startled by an unexpected sound or object or was reacting to another averse stimulus, such as conflicting stop and go cues from the rider.

Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with humans and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences.  Such beliefs imply that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way that is expected of them or required at a particular moment, and may be used as justification for punishment. However, horses do not understand punishment, and such actions will merely result in negative associations that can create fear and shape unwanted behaviours, making a horse dangerous to handle or ride.

Take-home Message

A horse’s failure to perform is never intentional. More often than not it is the result of physical discomfort, a lack of proper training, an ill-timed or confusing signal, or an unbalanced rider.

Sources 

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

Photos

(L) PublicDomainPictures.net

(R) Max Pixel FreeGreatPicture.com

 

 

The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship Part 2: Natural for whom? Challenging the myths 

The second part of The Potential Perils of Natural Horsemanship challenges some common beliefs inherent in the practice of natural horsemanship.

The ‘alpha’ & the dangers of dominance

“Dominance hierarchies, alpha positions or leadership in social groups of horses are man-made concepts that should not form the basis of human-horse interactions” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). If a trainer/handler believes that they need to be in a place of dominance in the relationship that may, in the trainer’s mind, condone the use of force or punishment which inevitably has negative welfare implications (Diehl, 2015; Webster, 2005). With efforts to establish this dynamic at the beginning of the NH training process, horses often experience confusion and negativity as they are forced to adapt to this artificial hierarchy (Birke, 2008).

Believing that a human can attain an alpha position or establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy at all may have negative implications for training. For example, if a trainer or handler is behaving in a dominant manner, it may trigger a fear response in the horse and condition avoidance behaviours. Furthermore, even if horses do have a hierarchical society, there is considerable debate around whether that hierarchy would involve humans, and to think that it would is most likely a purely anthropomorphic view. Such simplistic notions deny the complexity of horse-horse interactions and the subtleties of equine body language. The latter of which will be discussed a bit further on (International Society for Equitation Science, undated; Hartman, Christensen & McGreevey, 2017). For now, let’s return briefly to the prevalence of anthropomorphism in NH training.

The problem with anthropomorphic language

Traditional horsemanship dictates that horses are being disrespectful or disobedient if they are not behaving in the way their owner expects or requires at a particular moment (McGreevy, 2012). This concept of the horse having malicious intent is a clear case of anthropomorphism. In reality, a horse’s actions and reactions are based on instinct, natural and learned behaviours, or in response to pain or fear (a flight response). For example, when a horse ‘throws’ a rider off, there could be a number reasons for it, but malicious intent, dominance, or testing the rider is not one of them. The horse may have been startled by an unexpected sound or object or, more likely, was reacting to another aversive stimulus, such as an unbalanced rider or unclear signals from the rider.

As McGreevy & McLean (2010) indicate, applying anthropomorphic terms to horses ascribes them with a human thought process and overlooks their inherent cognitive process. Much like ascribing a horse with malice, the belief that horses have the cognitive ability to work in partnership with a human and have a desire to please are false constructs with potentially negative welfare consequences. There is no evidence that horses aspire to please humans (or other horses) or work toward shared goals. When humans have an expectation or false belief that the horse ‘understands’ what it is ‘supposed’ to do, what is required of it, “they are likely to give inappropriate signals to the [horse], such as delayed, inconsistent or meaningless reinforcements, resulting in deleterious behavioural changes” (p.41).

The ‘honorary herd member’

Many NH trainers believe it is possible to be accepted as a member of the herd and establish themselves within the equine social hierarchy. However, there is no scientific evidence that horses accept humans as a herd member. Recent studies indicate that life in a herd is more complex than simply a hierarchy dominated by one single leader or alpha mare, as was previously believed. Herd dynamics are fluid, relationships tend to be affiliative rather than hierarchical, and movement is often resource motivated and can be initiated by any member in the herd, not only by a stallion or alpha mare (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017; McLean, 2013).

In its Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training the International Society of Equitation Science (2017) explains that although older, more experienced horses will often exhibit leadership-type roles in herds of feral horses, and that agonistic interactions i.e. aggressive/submissive interactions between two or more group members may be common, particularly in domestic situations where management styles may result in more competition over food and shelter, this does not indicate that one horse is trying to dominate another.

Amongst humans, leadership is a reflection of shared expectations, with the leader acting intentionally. Do horses have the cognitive ability to understand human intentions and therefore share expectations during a given task? There is insufficient evidence that this is the case. It is more likely that horses approach humans out of curiosity or “because they have been trained to do so”, not because they accept humans as leaders (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017, p.7).

Learning to ‘speak horse’

While horses are capable of complex inter-species interactions, interactions within the equine-equine ethogram are far too complex and subtle for a human to mimic. Tail and ear movements are a prime example of equine communication that can never be replicated by any handler or trainer, no matter how skilled. Nor are the morphological differences between the two species lost on the horse (Hartman, Christensen & McGreevy, 2017).

While one can reasonably commit to being a keen observer of equine behaviour and develop an understanding of the subtleties of their body language and facial expressions, it is perhaps naive to believe that horses reaction to humans are based on anything other than a combination of instinct, learned, and conditioned responses. “It is beguiling to think that we can learn to ‘speak horse’ and enter their social hierarchy by mimicking their signals and behaviour. However, we are unable to mimic their signals with any subtlety as we do not have the same visual signalling structures” such as tails and ears that move (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean, 2009, p.7).  

Liberty vs. control

There is an inherent conflict between the aspiration of liberty and the exhibition of control. Even at liberty, the horse is not actually free to behave in a manner of its own accord. Rather, it is exhibiting learned and conditioned actions in response to subtle cues by a human. Thus, it could be argued that even at liberty, a great deal of control is still in play, possibly more so than at other times. “Indeed, for all that owners eulogize liberty, horsemanship of any sort is about control…. While horse owners [strive to ensure] that horses … go softly and without constraint, they [are] also asking horses to do specific tasks required by riding or NH groundwork. Asking horses to go sideways or backward is still asking them to do something on human terms” (Birke, 2008, p.119).

Conclusion: Natural for whom?

The intention of this review is not to discredit NH training entirely. Rather, the intention is to encourage horse owners and trainers to engage in a critical examination of NH, and any other training techniques, prior to adopting them. There are likely as many or more positive aspects of NH than there are negative and results can vary drastically. Much like many other things in our lives and in relation to horses, the outcome will depend on interpretation, implementation, and the specific nature and needs of the individual horse. The methods can be applied with care or in a manner that causes harm.

While NH strives to approach horsemanship and training with a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, there are inherent conflicts in a number of the practices employed. Such as the use of fear and dominance in training, and the tendency to ascribe higher cognitive abilities to the horse.

More research is needed to separate the species-appropriate concepts and techniques from the strictly human-serving and potentially damaging ones. One suggestion is to replace the word ‘natural’ in natural horsemanship with ‘distress-free’. In doing so, would a filter or bias be removed, enabling practitioners to properly assess the impact of their training methods on horses? When viewed through a lens of ‘distress-free’ training, how would NH practices rank in terms of welfare?

References

Birke, L. (2008). “Talking about Horses: Control and Freedom in the World of ‘Natural Horsemanship’.” Society and Animals 16 (2008) 107-126.

Diehl, N. (2015). “Common Human-Equine Interaction Misconceptions.” The Horse. Retrieved from http://www.thehorse.com/articles/35896/common-human-equine-interaction-misconceptions

Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & McLean (2009). “How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques.” The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hartman, E., J.W. Christensen & P.D. McGreevy. (2017). “Dominance and Leadership: Useful Concepts in Human-Horse Interactions?” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 52 (2017) 1-9.

International Society of Equitation Science. (undated). “Position statement on the use/misuse of leadership and dominance concepts in horse training.” Retrieved from http://equitationscience.com/equitation/position-statement-on-the-use-misuse-of-leadership-and-dominance-concepts-in-horse-training

McLean, A.N. (2013). “Training the ridden animal: An ancient hall of mirrors.” The Veterinary Journal 196 (2013) 133-136.

McGreevy, P. (2012). Equine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians and Equine Scientists, 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Elsevier.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2010). Equitation Science. Wiley Blackwell.

Webster, J. (2005). “The assessment and implementation of animal welfare: theory into practice.” Rev. sci. tech. Off. int. Epiz., 24 (2), p. 723-734