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Indicators of stress in equitation

By U. König v. Borstel, E. K. Visser, C. Hall

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Abstract

Stress is a generic concept describing the body’s reaction to external stimuli, including both physiological and psychological factors. Therefore, by definition, the assessment of psychological stress in the exercising horse encompasses the problem of teasing apart the psychological and physiological factors both of which result in stress responses. The present study reviews the existing literature on various measures of stress taken specifically in the context of equitation science. Particular attention has been paid to short-term effects, and commonly used measurements of short-term stress include heart rate, a number of heart rate variability parameters, blood or saliva cortisol levels, eye temperature, and various behaviour parameters including in particular behaviour patterns presumably indicative of conflict with the rider’s/trainer’s aids. Inspection of the individual studies’ results revealed that disagreement between these different measures of stress is commonplace. For physiological parameters, the largest proportion of agreement (i.e. both parameters simultaneously indicated either higher, insignificant or lower stress compared to a control treatment) was found for heart rate and heart rate variability parameters, while generally limited agreement was found for cortisol. It appears that cortisol levels may not be particularly useful for assessing/assessment of the valence of a situation in the exercising horse as cortisol levels are predominantly linked to activation and exercise levels. Although heart rate variability parameters reflect in theory more closely sympathovagal balance compared to cortisol levels, great care has to be taken regarding the use of appropriate time-frames, appropriate raw data correction methods as well as the use of appropriate equipment. In spite of its wide-spread and apparently successful use, popular equipment may in fact not be accurate enough under field conditions. Eye temperature is another promising parameter for assessment of psychological stress, but the technique is likewise susceptible to application errors. Given the high susceptibility of physiological parameters to errors at various experimental stages, behavioural rather than physiological parameters may in fact provide more accurate measures of valence when conducting experiments in the exercising horse. Behavioural parameters that appear to be particularly practical in assessing stress in ridden horses’ behaviour are associated with frequencies of behaviour indicative of conflict. However, while increased frequencies of are a good indicator of stress, the absence of conflict behaviour does not provide proof of the absence of stress due to the possible occurrence of conditions such as Learned Helplessness. In future studies, the above issues should be taken into consideration when designing experiments to assess psychological stress in ridden horses.

Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 190
Pages 43-56
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.02.018
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Tags
  1. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  2. Cortisol
  3. Heart rate
  4. Horses
  5. Riding
  6. Stress