Simple Trick Soothes Horses

Researchers have uncovered an easy way to calm horses that are nervous about traveling alone in a trailer. Horses and ponies generally feel more comfortable sharing a trailer in the company of another equine. But when only one horse is being transported, researchers have found that the loner can be tricked into feeling less alone.

Scientists at  Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom confirmed the comforting influence of surrogate companionship in a study of 12 mature horses. The animals were each transported in a horse trailer for half-an-hour under three different conditions. To determine stress levels in the traveling horses, researchers noted behaviours such as pawing, neighing, head-tossing and feeding. Several physical signs of the horses were also monitored.

Compared with traveling on their own, horses when trailered along with another horse spent significantly more time eating and less time vocalizing, pawing, and tossing or turning their head. Changes in their heart rate and body temperature also indicated the animals were happier when traveling with a buddy.

Being accompanied by a mirror though, was almost as comforting as the presence of another horse. Researchers installed an acrylic safety mirror, measuring 81 by 60.5 centimetres (32 by 24 inches), into the trailer used to haul a single horse.

While traveling along with the mirror, horses behaved similarly to when they had a live companion. Expressions of discomfort including calling out, and head tossing and turning, occurred much less than when alone. As well, horses riding with a mirror in the trailer spent as much time eating as when another horse was alongside. The changes in physiological signs of horses accompanied by a mirror however, were only slightly different from those in horses traveling in isolation.

The authors of this study conclude that when it's not possible to haul a horse with a friend, a mirror is a good substitute, and certainly preferable to a being alone.

Reference

Rachel Kay and Carol Hall. 2009. The use of a mirror reduces isolation stress in horses being transported by trailer. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 116(2-4): 237-243.

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