Equestrian players are lagging behind the companion animal industry in emphasizing the importance of the human-animal bond, the researchers suggest.
Human-horse interactions are central to our relationship with equines, but there seems to be little consensus around valid measures of their emotional state and response to human contact, they reported.
Katherine Kelly, Laurie McDuffee and Kimberly Mears, in a recently published scoping study, set out to examine the effects of human-horse interactions on equine behavior, physiology and welfare.
Review team, writing in the journal Animals, said human-horse interactions are important and stakeholders are invested in making sure they are human. The interactions are diverse, ranging from those with work horses to pleasure or company.
“As a result, the well-being of the horses during these interactions, including their mental and physical health, is an important consideration,” said the trio.
Although the physical health of horses can be easily measured during equestrian activities, their mental health is more difficult to assess.
The review was conducted to assess what is known about the horse’s mental state during common human-horse interactions with the aim of better understanding their well-being.
They set out to map current practices related to the measurement of interactions, explore their known effects on horse behavior and physiology, and clarify the link between human-horse interactions and equine welfare.
A total of 45 articles met their criteria for inclusion in the review.
Studies that used both physiological and behavioral measures of the equine response to human interactions accounted for 42% of the included studies. Another 31% used physiological measures exclusively and 27% used behavioral observation.
The authors found that the current evidence for equine well-being during human-horse interactions is minimal and largely relies on the absence of an underlying negative emotional state during forced interactions.
The measurement practices employed in the studies were varied and diverse in nature. “To date, there appears to be little consensus regarding reliable and valid measures of the horse’s emotional state and response to human interaction,” they said.
“The science of human-animal interaction is often criticized for its lack of methodological rigor and the use of standardized tools and its subsequent influence on animal welfare.
Significant differences and various practices were identified in the studies reviewed in the review. This, they said, indicates a need for standardization of measurements and reports to improve our understanding of the impact of human-horse interactions on equines. More research using standardized assessment and objective investigation is needed, they said.
The authors identified several gaps in the literature that need to be addressed. “Many studies in this review attempted to measure stress and concluded that lack of stress, based on physiological and behavioral indicators, was an indication of good well-being during human-horse interactions.
“Although it is a component of well-being, positive experiences perceived by the animal are also an important aspect of animal welfare. “
Therefore, more robust assessments of well-being, including measures of the horse’s underlying emotional state during human-horse interactions, are warranted, they said.
A more complete assessment will likely require the combined use of current methods, as well as the addition of new methods. These could include a catalog of linkage behaviors and physiological measures of wellness hormones, such as oxytocin and serotonin. Studies using a cognitive bias approach also show promise for understanding animal emotions, they said.
“There is a need to focus on methods that use both behavioral and physiological measures, because behavioral responses to the environment can be suppressed.
“Horses with passive coping styles and well-trained horses may not easily exhibit behaviors indicative of stress or aversion.”
A better understanding of current methods is also important, they said. For example, cortisol levels can reflect arousal and arousal as well as physical activity. Measurements of heart rate variability, which reflect the parasympathetic and sympathetic aspects of the autonomic nervous system, are complex and require further knowledge.
Continued analysis of the relationship between behaviors and physiological measures can lead to clear biomarkers for measures of stress and well-being, they suggest.
“An improved ability to assess the emotional state of the horse during human-horse interactions will require an expansion of the use and understanding of current research methods and the discovery and implementation of new methods.
“While this can be a difficult task, it will be essential for genuinely assessing horse welfare during horse-human interactions and for proposing future improvements in horse welfare in the equine industry.”
Ensuring the welfare of horses during human-horse interactions is essential for promoting positive and secure relationships between humans and horses in a variety of settings.
The review team concluded that standardized approaches to measuring key aspects of horse welfare are needed to advance understanding of how interactions with humans affect equine welfare.
The research is essential to continue advancing our understanding of the underlying emotional states of horses, the results of which could be used to help policymakers in the equine industry. “The practical application of knowledge gained through research must be addressed. “
Changes are apparent in how humans perceive animals in the 21st century, they said.
“The emphasis on animals as companions and the promotion of the human-animal bond brings about positive changes for animals in society.
“While players in the companion animal industry insist on the importance of the human-animal bond, players in the equine industry are lagging behind.
“Because horses don’t live in the house with humans, they’re not often considered a member of the family.
“However, promoting horses as companions, rather than just a fun mechanism, can improve the focus on welfare.
“A lot of riders really want a positive relationship with their horse,” they said. Therefore, informing horse owners, trainers and trainers that every human-horse interaction has a dramatic effect on improving or worsening the human-animal bond could influence their behavior.
“Providing riders with tools to measure the emotional state of the horse during various interactions will also be essential for better attention to well-being.
“To this end, future research goals should also include the development and implementation of methods that can be used by equine stakeholders, and leaders in the field of equine health and welfare should be the first to adopt in promoting the human-animal bond with riders and horses. . “
The review team was based in Canada. Kelly is at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John; McDuffee works at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown; and Mears is at the University of Prince Edward Island, also in Charlottetown.
Kelly, KJ; McDuffee, LA; Mears, K. The effect of human-horse interactions on equine behavior, physiology, and welfare: a scoping review. Animals 2021, 11, 2782. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11102782
The journal, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.