The question of whether or not certain head and neck positions make horses uncomfortable has received a lot of attention and research, but has anyone asked the horse? That’s what a team of German equitation scientists set out to do–sort of.
By studying horses’ body language while holding their head and neck in different positions, the researchers were able to “read” the horses’ comfort level. And horses appear to say they find positions behind the vertical to uncomfortable, said Kathrin Kienapfel, MSc, a researcher at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany. She presented the research at the 2012 International Society for Equitation Science conference.
Kienapfel and her colleagues observed the behavior of 85 horses in various head-and-neck positions, with the nose in front of, in line with, or behind the vertical.
The team evaluated 25 of the horses in a research setting, with the animals standing at halter as their handlers moved their heads and necks into seven positions:
- Relaxed, “normal”;
- Head-down-to-the-ground feeding;
- Stretched forward;
- “Gathered” with the head up and back but still in front of the vertical;
- “Tucked” in which the head was up and in line with the vertical;
- “High” in which the horse’s head was lifted up; and
- “Low, deep, and round” in which the head was low and behind the vertical.
The horses were accustomed to all the positions used in the study, Kienapfel said, and the “normal” and “feeding” positions were used as controls.
The team evaluated the other 60 horses in a competition setting in which riders were unaware of the evaluation, Kienapfel noted. Thirty of the horses were ridden above (or in front of) the vertical and the other 30 were ridden behind the vertical.
The researchers looked for signs of discomfort in the horses’ body language, including mouth opening and abnormal oral behavior such as sticking out the tongue,pinning the ears, tossing the head, swishing the tail, struggling against the reins, and even groaning.
Across all five different “test” positions in the standing horses, nearly half of the discomfort behaviors occurred in the low, deep, and round position, Kienapfel said, and more than a third occurred in the tucked position with the head in line with the vertical. Even the gathered position caused some discomfort, she said, with 11% of the discomfort behavior occurring in this position.
In the ridden horses, discomfort differences between positions in front of the vertical and behind the vertical were even more obvious, said Kienapfel. Nearly 90% of the observed discomfort behaviors occurred in horses ridden behind the vertical, she said.
However, type of discomfort behavior varied somewhat between the standing and ridden horses. For example, the 30 horses ridden behind the vertical showed 225 instances of tail swishing during the observation period (compared to only 20 times in the 30 horses ridden above the vertical). But in the 25 standing horses, only one instance of tail swishing occurred, and this was in a horse holding his head in the tucked position.
“We are fully aware of the fact that it’s not the head and neck position alone that defines how the horses feel,” said Kienapfel. “But head and neck position does turn out to be a statistically seizable factor in this.”