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Assessment of mental stress in warmblood horses: heart rate variability in comparison to heart rate and selected behavioural parameters

By T. R. Rietmann, A. E. A. Stuart, P. Bernasconi, M. Stauffacher, J. A. Auer, M. A. Weishaupt

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The aim of the study was to investigate whether heart rate variability (HRV) could assess alterations of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) at different levels of excitement. The behavioural and physiological responses of 20 warmblood horses to a challenging ground exercise task were studied. Prior to the experiment, the horses were evaluated at rest and during forward walking (FW). The horses were then forced to move backwards continuously during 3 min according to a standardised protocol (BW1). Subsequently, the horses were exposed to two training sessions, after which the backward walking (BW2) was re-evaluated. Heart rate (HR) and HRV-parameters such as the standard deviation of the beat-to-beat intervals (SDRR), the low (LF; sympathetic tone) and high frequency (HF) component of HRV (HF; parasympathetic tone) and their ratio (LF/HF; index representing the sympatho-vagal balance) were sampled at rest, and during FW, BW1 and BW2. Stress-related behaviour during BW1 and BW2 was determined from video recordings. The results of the different evaluations were compared to each other. Compared to rest and FW, the first backward experiment induced a significant rise in HR, LF and LF/HF and a significant decrease of HF. SDRR decreased from both FW and rest with only the latter reaching significance. In BW2 after the training sessions, HR and the parameters of the sympathetic branch of the ANS (LF, LF/HF) were decreased and the vagal tone (HF) increased compared to BW1; all changes were significant. The duration of stress indicating behavioural patterns revealed also a significant decrease of excitement after the training, when backward walking did not differ from forward walking in any parameter. Correlations between HRV-parameters and stress indicating behaviour as well as HR were found. We conclude that the HRV-parameters LF and HF are valuable measures to quantify sympatho-vagal balance, which allows a more precise assessment of the responses of HR and SDRR to mental stress during low intensity exercise.

Date 2004
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 88
Issue 1/2
Pages 121-136
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
Language English
Author Address Equine Hospital, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 260, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal behavior
  2. Animal physiology
  3. Exercise
  4. Heart rate
  5. Horses
  6. Mammals
  7. Mental stress
  8. nervous system
  9. parasympathetic system
  10. peer-reviewed
  11. Psychological stress
  12. Stress
  13. training of animals
  1. peer-reviewed