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Evaluating stress in riding horses: part one - behavior assessment and serum cortisol

By M. R. Hovey, A. Davis, S. Chen, P. Godwin, C. A. S. Porr

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Stress can impact the health and well-being of animals negatively. Behavioral and physiological changes, particularly serum cortisol, offer objective and easy-to-use methods of evaluating stress in horses. However, limited studies support a positive relationship between changes in stress-related serum cortisol concentrations and stress-related behaviors in horses. This study assessed differences in stress-related behaviors and serum cortisol concentrations in horses used in a therapeutic riding program (TRH) or university riding program (UNI). Riders were grouped by disability type (TRH) or by experience level (UNI) to determine equine stress impacts. Two trained observers evaluated equine behavior during multiple riding lessons. Behaviors were scored live and via video to assess the accuracy of live scoring. Blood samples for serum cortisol concentrations were collected before, immediately after, and 30 minutes after riding lessons. Serum cortisol concentrations decreased from before to after a riding lesson (TRH, P ≤ .01; UNI, P = .0004) and increased over the course of the study (TRH ≤ 0.0002; UNI, P ≤ .0001). All serum cortisol concentrations remained within or below normal ranges. Overall behavior scores were relatively low in horses participating in both riding programs. Similar behavior scores were observed in horses ridden by novice and experienced riders (P ≥ .1662); however, behavior scores differed in TRH horses ridden by one group of disabled riders during a riding lesson (P ≤ .0431). A relationship between stress-related behavior and cortisol concentration changes was not shown clearly, but data suggest that horses were in a low-stress environment.

Date 2021
Publication Title Journal of Equine Veterinary Science
Volume 96
ISBN/ISSN 0737-0806
Publisher Elsevier
DOI 10.1016/j.jevs.2020.103297
Language English
Author Address Murray State University, Murray, Kentucky, USA.moniquehovey@gmail.com
Additional Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. Animal behavior
  3. Animal physiology
  4. Animals
  5. Animal welfare
  6. Behavioral research
  7. Biochemistry
  8. Biology
  9. Blood
  10. Chemicals
  11. Disabilities
  12. Health care
  13. Horseback riding
  14. Horses
  15. Humans
  16. Hydrocortisone
  17. Mammals
  18. Men
  19. Non-communicable diseases and injuries
  20. pathology
  21. physiology
  22. Physiology and biochemistry
  23. Primates
  24. prophylaxis
  25. Sport animals
  26. Stress
  27. Stress response
  28. ungulates
  29. vertebrates
  30. Veterinary sciences
  31. Zoology