Can vet and equine science students interpret horse behaviour?

Gronqvist, G., Rogers, C., Gee, E., Martinez, A., & Bolwell, C. (2017). Veterinary and Equine Science Students’ Interpretation of Horse Behaviour. Animals, 7(8), 63

This study looks at the ability of veterinary and equine science students to recognise different moods in horses, and how this ability may be linked to their previous experience with equines.

Recognising different behaviours is important both for horse welfare and the safety of the handler.  In this study, 127 first year students (studying an animal related course) from Massey University in New Zealand were shown six short videos of horses in different situations.  They were asked to describe the horse's mental state in each situation using one or more of fifteen pre-selected terms. These included terms such as friendly, aggressive, relaxed, distressed etc. They were also asked to score how strongly they felt the term reflected the horses affective state, from one (weak) to five (strong).

Experience correlated with score accuracy 

The researchers found a wide variety of terms were used to describe the horses in each video, and there were a number of students (usually the less experienced ones) that selected completely inappropriate terms. Horses are one of the most dangerous animals to handle and there are many reported injuries, often due to failure to recognise negative emotions and anticipate unwanted behaviour.  However, many students entering animal based courses have very little experience with horses and a poor understanding of horse behaviour. 

It is essential that people who work with horses are able to recognise negative moods, to both anticipate potentially dangerous situations and for the individual animal's welfare.  There appeared to be an association with inexperience and inappropriate descriptions, including failure to identify behaviours that indicate negative emotional states.  More research is needed to understand what level of experience is beneficial when handling horses.  Introducing more behaviour and welfare science to the curriculum could be an advantage for the students. Giving 'at risk' students additional tutoring on behaviour before they handle animals is also advised.

World Animal Protection’s view

We believe that when animals are handled as part of educational courses, it is essential that the animal’s welfare is considered, and the animals are handled appropriately to minimise stress. It is also important that students studying animal related courses learn how to handle an interpret animals’ body  language appropriately.