When most horse owners and veterinarians think of equine welfare, the focus tends to skew toward attributes of physical health. Is my horse sound? Are they performing well? While these are important questions, a key element is missing – equine behavior. Behavior has rarely been considered part of the equation when it comes to good horse health but there is a growing awareness of the link between behavior and well-being.
Dr. Wendy Koch, a veterinarian and horse lover, is deeply concerned about horse welfare, especially when it comes to behavior issues. Dr. Koch was discouraged every time she tried to learn more and found almost no research projects focused on behavior issues affecting horses. She decided to do something about it. Dr. Koch reached out to Morris Animal Foundation and worked with the Foundation to create a special fund, Equine Behavior/Welfare Research, to support studies improving the understanding of horses’ behavioral and psychological needs and challenges.
From this fund, five new equine behavior studies were approved for 2022, exploring a wide range of behavior issues affecting horses.
Dr. Kris Hiney, from Oklahoma State University, is a newly funded researcher whose team is exploring if teaching horse owners how to better recognize different emotional states (affective states) in horses will lead to improved welfare.
To do this, Dr. Hiney is developing on online training tool known as RAiSE (Recognizing Affective States in Equine). In her funded study, Dr. Hiney will compare horse owners who’ve gone through the training and those who haven’t to determine their ability to assess welfare in different scenarios. The team will make any adjustments needed based on results and feedback before launching the tool to a larger group and making it available to all who are interested. They hope that owner education and training tools will lead to an overall improvement in equine welfare.
When asked about her motivation, Dr. Hiney pointed to her experience showing horses and seeing behavior and welfare problems firsthand.
“There are too many instances to name,” said Dr. Hiney. “It was a lot of knives in the heart over the years. This is my small way to try to change attitudes and practices to improve the lives of these amazing animals.”
Another newly funded team of researchers, Drs. Tanja Hess and Jessica Seabra of Colorado State University, will study the influence feeding method on behavior.
“We suspect that a lot of behavior issues in horses occur because, as horse caretakers, we have disrupted their natural grazing behavior, leading to behavior problems,” said Dr. Hess.
The team’s approach is simple. Study horses will be divided into three groups and fed hay free choice, via a slow feeder or with a box feeder. The horses will be rotated through each feeding method and their behavior observed. In addition, the team will be measuring blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The team hopes to learn more about best feeding practices to minimize stress and unwanted behavior.
Other newly funded studies include:
Effect of touch in human-horse interactions
Researchers will measure stress in horses involved in human interactions to find ways to alleviate stress and improve the experience and strengthen relationships between humans and horses.
Study stress in mares during weaning time
Researchers will study mare behavior during weaning of foals to develop strategies designed to reduce chronic stress in mares.
Impact of light on stabled horses
Researchers will study the effect of different types of indoor lighting on the behavior and well-being of horses in stables.
Learn more about these newly funded studies and how Morris Animal Foundation is helping develop real-world strategies to help horses everywhere!