What science says about ear covers for horses

Researchers investigated whether sound-reducing ear gear reduce a horse’s reactivity and improve performance.

A growing number of show horses are outfitted with sound-reducing ear gear, ranging from foam balls stuffed inside the auditory canal to knit “bonnets” that cover the entire pinna. But does this equipment really help reduce a horse’s reactivity to sounds? A new study from England suggests that depends on the horse wearing them.

If you know that a particular noise is distracting to your horse, ear covers may be worth a try, say researchers. (Adobe Stock)

“We have noticed ear covers being increasingly used across numerous equestrian disciplines. And we think the reasons for use differ between competitors,” says Clare Hole of Cambridge University, who herself is also an international dressage rider. “Although this was not explicitly researched as part of this study, ad-hoc conversations with riders throughout data collection suggested noise-damping ear covers were used if their horse appeared to react more sensitively to sound.”

She adds that evidence-based research into the utility of these ear covers is important “to ensure that, as riders and horse owners. We can maximize welfare whilst also optimizing performance in equestrian sport.”

Trying them out

To investigate the efficacy of “bonnet” style fabric ear covers in damping noise, the researchers chose 18 horses regularly ridden in competitions wearing this type of ear gear.

The horses were randomly exposed to five different sounds—applause, hoofbeats at a trot, music, a whinny and feed being poured into a bucket—in a controlled environment, both wearing ear covers and without them.

The researchers monitored each horse’s behavior in reaction to the sounds as well as their physiological responses, such as heart rate.

What the data showed

The data showed that there were observable differences in each individual’s responses to different sounds, and ear covers had an effect on these responses for some horses. Interestingly, the sound of grain being poured into a bucket evoked statistically significant differences in heart rate among all the horses, whether they were wearing ear covers or not.

The researchers note that a horse’s reaction to a specific noise likely reflects his past experiences. “The reactions to auditory cues will, in part, depend on previous experience and the associations the horses have formed with that sound and the situation it is presented in,” says Hole.

Is some noise beneficial?

She notes that these responses are not necessarily undesirable. “Auditory signals could have an enhancing effect on some horses during competition. For example, applause as a horse enters the arena—as often happens in international show jumping events—may improve the performance as the auditory cue signals to prepare to jump the round.” That said, adds Hole, “this is not the case for all horses. The use of noise-damping ear covers could provide a way of reducing stress for those who react adversely to some auditory cues.”

If you know a particular noise is distracting to your horse, ear covers may be worth a try, Hole says. “In addition to the overall reduction in heart rate and behavioral responses, some horses showed particularly significant reductions—especially in behavioral responses—suggesting that noise dampening ear covers could hold utility in com- petition environments.”

Reference: “Equine behavioral and physiological responses to auditory stimuli in the presence and absence of noise-damping ear covers,” Animals, May 2023

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