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An objective measure of reactive behaviour in horses

By Glenys K. Noble, Kathryn L. Blackshaw, Ann Cowling, Patricia A. Harris, Martin N. Sillence

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Several tests have been devised in an attempt to detect behaviour modification due to training, supplements or diet in horses. These tests rely on subjective observations in combination with physiological measures, such as heart rate (HR) and plasma cortisol concentrations, but these measures do not definitively identify behavioural changes. The aim of the present studies was to develop an objective and relevant measure of horse reactivity. In Study 1, HR responses to auditory stimuli, delivered over 6 days, designed to safely startle six geldings confined to individual stalls was studied to determine if peak HR, unconfounded by physical exertion, was a reliable measure of reactivity. Both mean (±SEM) resting HR (39.5±1.9bpm) and peak HR (82±5.5bpm) in response to being startled in all horses were found to be consistent over the 6 days. In Study 2, HR, plasma cortisol concentrations and speed of departure from an enclosure (reaction speed (RS)) in response to a single stimulus of six mares were measured when presented daily over 6 days. Peak HR response (133±4bpm) was consistent over days for all horses, but RS increased (3.02±0.72m/s on Day 1 increasing to 4.45±0.53m/s on Day 6; P=0.005). There was no effect on plasma cortisol, so this variable was not studied further. In Study 3, using the six geldings from Study 1, the RS test was refined and a different startle stimulus was used each day. Again, there was no change in peak HR (97.2±5.8bpm) or RS (2.9±0.2m/s on Day 1 versus 3.0±0.7m/s on Day 6) over time. In the final study, mild sedation using acepromazine maleate (0.04mg/kg BW i.v.) decreased peak HR in response to a startle stimulus when the horses (n=8) were confined to a stall (P=0.006), but not in an outdoor environment when the RS test was performed. However, RS was reduced by the mild sedation (P=0.02). In conclusion, RS may be used as a practical and objective test to measure both reactivity and changes in reactivity in horses.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 144
Issue 3
Pages 121-129
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.009
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Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  2. Cortisol
  3. Heart rate
  4. Horses