Heart Rate's Effect on Equine Performance

A new show ring and a new environment can equate to stress--and even poor performance--for your horse. Because according to Danish equitation scientists, the faster a horse's heart rate in a new environment, the more likely he is to perform poorly.

New places are also not the ideal environment for teaching your horse a new trick, added Janne Winther Christensen, PhD, from the faculty of science and technology at Aarhus University in Tjele, during the presentation of her study at the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands. As she and her colleagues discovered, not only do horses tend to perform better at home, they also tend to learn better.

Studying 25 Danish Warmblood geldings (aged 2 to 3 years) all pastured together, Christensen and her fellow researchers compared heart rates when the horses were being taught something new at home, and when they were being taught the same task again in a novel, competitionlike environment a month later. At both sites, the horses were trained to sidepass (crossover) when the handler cued the horse with a whip.

Before training started at each site, the researchers gave the geldings a basic "fearfulness test," in which they noted and rated the horses' behavioral reactions in response to a surprise object. They also checked the basic cortisol (the "stress" hormone) level in the horses' droppings while they were at pasture and observed their social rankings within their group to determine if that had any impact on learning and performance ability.

The researchers determined that not only was heart rate generally higher in the novel environment than in the home environment (65 versus 53 beats/minute), but it also was a good indicator of how the individual horses would perform in the show ring, as performance quality (in reference to performing the sidepass) decreased as heart rates increased, Christensen said.

However, individual heart rate wasn't related to how the horses performed at home, she said. Neither was their basic level of fearfulness.

Performance in the new environment was significantly associated with the basic level of fearfulness, with individual performance levels the lowest for the horses determined to be the most fearful. "Performance in a stressful environment may be predicted by a fear test in the home environment," Christensen said.

That being said, performance in the show ring cannot be predicted by performance at home. "There was no correlation between performance in the home environment and in the novel environment, meaning that horses that performed well in the home environment did not necessarily perform at the same level in the novel environment," added Christensen.

A horse's basic stress level and social ranking had no effect on performance at home or away, Christensen said. But an interesting side finding was that the basic stress level was clearly related to the social ranking in this study: the higher the social rank, the lower the basic stress level.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.

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