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Tucker and Marissa
I just read a wonderful blog post about the human-horse bond in scary or stressful situations. In her Sidelines Blog, Tucker the Wunderkind, my friend Marissa talks about the evils that can lurk under a docked rowboat and wonders who is making who more nervous. Is her horse simply wary of the unknown? As Tucker himself cleverly points out, “he is a 1200-pound, juicy, tasty, lean, flight animal, and he was therefore altogether NOT in the habit of nonchalantly approaching unidentified objects that could very well turn out to be sleeping predators just waiting for a mid-morning snack.” Or is his rider, who knows this horse so well, anticipating his reaction and contributing to the panic?
    If you read the full article, you’ll find out that a little bravery on both parts makes for a wonderful walk around the lake, but I’m a scientist, a number crunching, graph loving, p-value calculating researcher. I always want to know if there are cold hard facts to support the ideas we know to be truths. And that’s when I remembered the Umbrella Study and I wanted to share it with you, and all the Tucker fans out there. I think it does a great job of showing that it’s not all in our heads, but what starts in our heads can affect the whole body.
   Back in 2009, researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences at Uppsala recognized that most research in equestrian sciences focused on how intentional signals, given by an experienced rider during training sessions can affect the performance of a horse. The unintentional signals however, had been long ignored. These unintentional signals are even more important in human-horse interactions. We all know horses (and most other animals) can sense what we’re feeling, but does what we’re feeling translate into a physiologic change in the animal? Can our nervousness, our apprehension cause a measurable change in our horses? This group thought so and they hypothesized that a person could communicate anxiety about a particular situation to the horse they were with.

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Methods and Materials:
To prove their theory, they took 27 horses and 37 riders, all who were associated with the agricultural college. All the riders had at least 3 years experience with horses, but none were professionals and all the testing was done in the indoor ring where the horses were used to being worked daily. The test was done first with the person leading the horse and then again with the rider in the saddle. Heart rate monitors were placed on the humans and the horses and data was recorded throughout the test. Horse were led or ridden at a slow walk between two cones placed 30 meters apart. When they got to the end of the track they turned around and went back. They did this 4 times. Just before the 4th pass down the lane, the rider was told by the experimenter that an assistant, who had been standing off to the side of the path would open an umbrella as the horse walked past!! The study is quick to point out that, “the umbrella was not opened.” They weren’t testing how scary an opening umbrella could be, cause we all know the answer to that, they were looking to see if anticipating the scary event would affect the riders and would that translate to the horses. 
    In addition to the heart rates of the horse and rider, an unbiased observer gave an overall behavior score based on “(1) the position of the person in relation to the horse when they were leading it; (2) how close to the horse’s head they held the lead rein; (3) the length of the reins if they were riding; (4) the position of the horse’s head; (5) the position of the tail, and (6) the horse’s behavior on a scale from ‘relaxed’ to ‘very alert.’”

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Sinus Tachycardia: A rapid heart rate.
Results
    The results were impressive. When looking at the rider, their heart rate decreased from the first time down the path to third time, as they became comfortable with the task at hand, but not surprisingly, it increased during the 4th pass, when they were expecting the umbrella. There was more of an increase in human heart rate if the person was riding the horse as opposed to leading it. So what did the horses think about this? Their responses mirrored their human’s nearly identically. Horses heart rates decreased as they went from the beginning of the test to the third time down the track but whether being led or being ridden, there was a significant increase in the horse’s heart rate on the 4th pass. The authors concluded, “thus the heart rate of the horse increased when the person ‘thought’ the horse might be frightened by the umbrella.”

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   So how is it that we are conveying this message to our horses? Are they mind readers? Are we sending telepathic signals warning them about the umbrellas that hide behind every tree, tarp and trailer door? The study did note that while the heart rates were clearly affected, there was no behavioral difference seen in horses but the riders tended to shorten their reins on the 4th pass compared with the 3rd. A subtle cue, yes, but as this only happens when we are on their back, there must be some other deeper connection there.
     The study finished up by stating that the higher heart rate seen in the horses means they were more alert and prepared to react to any danger. This happens in the wild as an adaptive response to signals from other horses in the herd in response to a potential threat. They also point out that other studies have shown that the “startle response” in animals is far more pronounced when they are alert. They propose that a nervous rider may increase the likelihood of an exaggerated ‘startle response” and that increasing our awareness (and trying to control) these unconscious, unintentional signals could help to reduce the number of times a ‘scary situation’ turns into an accident.

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    So experts out there have been right all along when they say, “the animals can sense your fear.” There is some science behind what Marissa and Tucker were BOTH feeling. Maybe her knowledge of his past bravery (or lack thereof) was like an experimenter promising a fluttering umbrella, or maybe a subtle cue from him (pricked ears, a little snort) was like a rider shortening her reins. It really doesn’t matter who started it, we know now that the connection is real and if we take a deep breath and try lying to our horses about our own anxieties, we may make it around the lake in one piece!


Like stories about how horses learn from and react to us humans? Check out The Way to a Horse's Heart...Through the stomach or the withers?


You can follow Marissa and Tucker's adventures at Tucker the Wunderkind, a Sidelines Blog by Marissa Quigley.

The Umbrella Study:
Keeling LJ, Jonare L, Lanneborn L. Investigating horse-human interactions: the effect of a nervous human. Vet J. 2009 Jul;181(1):70-1.

 


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