Fear reactions in riding horses : a comparison between dressage and jumping horses

University essay from SLU/Dept. of Animal Environment and Health

Author: Märta Claesson Lundin; [2005]

Keywords: horses; behaviour; fear reactions;

Abstract: It is common knowledge among "horse people" that dressage horses are more easily spooked and more skittish than show jumping horses however, to my knowledge, no scientific research has been made earlier to test this assumption. It is also important to have the right horse-rider combination in different situations to avoid accidents. Many horses that are bred to become Grand Prix horses never succeed all the way up but end up with a beginner rider on the road with traffic and other stimuli, which can result in accidents due to the wrong horse-rider combination in the wrong situation. Thus a horse that might work well in a competition arena with a professional rider may be considered easily spooked and skittish when combined with a less experienced rider in a completely different environment. Both the horse's physical capabilities as well as its temperament affect the optimal performance of the horse. So far the main focus in equine research has been related to predicting final performance and the physical ability of the horse. Nevertheless, during the last couple of years, research in horses' fear reactions has increased. Hopefully this will eventually also lead to better performance, as well as a better human-horse relationship and fewer horse related accidents. The aim with this experiment was to investigate whether training - young unbroken versus competition horses, and/or genes - dressage versus show jumping lines, affects how horses respond to fear stimuli. The stimulus in this study was a large, black plastic garbage bag. It was placed on the ground, obliquely behind and about 8 metres from the bucket with oats where the horse was standing. The plastic bag was pulled with a string by an observer so it moved about one metre. In this paper only the horses' visible behavioural reactions to the stimulus were analysed due to time constraints. Thirty-two riding horses were included in this study, 15 in the dressage group and 17 in the show jumping group, their education levels were from just minimally handled to training Grand Prix movements. To be allowed to be part of the study the horse's training status and its Sire's BLUP-index were considered. The results showed significant differences in reaction vigour between dressage horses and show jumping horses of all ages with the dressage horses reacting more. There were some non-significant differences between the age groups within each discipline. In conclusion, these results suggest that genetics has a more important role in how strongly the horse reacts than does its training and that horses of dressage lines are more reactive than lines of show jumping horses. I would find it really interesting if someone could continue this work, comparing dressage and show jumping horses, but in a larger experiment, with the improvements mentioned in the discussion. If so, the results might help us move one step closer towards a mentality test for horses, which could help us prevent further horse related accidents by assisting us to pick the right horse for the right situation and rider.

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