Have you ever noticed that you can ride or lead your horse past an object – mounting block, chair, garbage can, etc. – and after a few passes your horse is fine with it, only to have the offending object change places and the next day your horse looks at it as though it was a Yeti?
Turns out it’s not just you or your horse, but in fact a fairly common and expected pattern of equine behavior that a recent study suggests could help prevent spooks.
Researchers in Colorado, Megan Elizabeth Corgan and Sarah Matlock and world-renowned animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, all with the Department of Animal Science at Colorado State University, published the study in the journal Animals.
The study was fairly simple: the team placed a bright plastic children’s playset in the alcove of a barn aisle and walked horses past it over the course of several days. The twenty animals used in the experiment were two and three year old quarter horses.
For the first three days, the horses were led past the alcove five times without the playset inside to familiarize the animals to the “test area.”
Then for the next three days, the playset was placed in the alcove and the horses were led past it five times each day, with their behaviour videoed and assessed for evidence of spooking.
And on the final three days of the study, the horses were placed into two groups: a control group where the playset remained in its original position; then in the other group the playset was rotated 90 degrees clockwise. The horses were then led past the alcove five times a day. You can likely imagine the outcome.
The researchers found significant differences in behaviour between the control group and the ‘rotated’ group, which would come as no surprise to anyone with experience riding or leading a horse past a novel object like a mailbox or tractor. What is fine one way may be terrifying the other way!
“Horses that reacted to the novel object in the rotated group reacted similarly on the first pass by the rotated position of the object as they did on the initial pass by the novel object,” the study team said.
According to the researchers, the most significant differences between the two groups occurred during the first four walk-bys. “After pass four by the rotated object, there was little significant difference between the rotated and control groups,” they said.
“When a previously familiar complex novel object is rotated, the rotated object may cause reactions similar to the initial exposure to the novel object,” the researchers concluded. “This,” they said, “confirms what handlers and riders have described anecdotally.”
The takeaway for riders is this; if you enter a ring/barn/arena or any environment, it’s best to take a look around and see if anything significant has moved or changed. If it has, it might be worth leading your horse past it, and even let it look at it, before expecting it not to react. This could help prevent a spook and in some cases a fall; according to statistics, spooking is associated with 27% of all horse-related accidents.
Of course, many of us are told not to let a horse look at something, but to instead ride by normally until the horse learns not to spook. The study shows in fact that if riders and handlers “can be prepared for how a horse may react, they may be able to help reduce risk by adjusting training methods to allow for investigation of all sides of an object…Further research needs to be conducted to evaluate how different methods of handling and training affect the horses’ reaction to changes in their environment.”