Editor's note: This article is part of TheHorse.com's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Horse people have long said that horses can pick up cues about how nervous or how calm the humans around them are. Now, according to a group of equitation scientists, scientific evidence is beginning to develop behind that theory.
During a presentation at the 8th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor and equine program coordinator at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, explained that horses loose in a round pen react differently to calm versus nervous humans. And interestingly enough, they show the calmest reactions toward the most stressed humans.
"In modern times in the Western world, horses have become companions--and even more so, friends," Merkies said. "But a new hot topic is using horses in therapy, and so it's important to know how horses react to people who aren't familiar with them or even frightened of them."
In her study Merkies and colleagues employed 10 horses (draft-type geldings very familiar with people) and 16 humans. They first asked the humans to evaluate their comfort level with horses on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most afraid of horses. Merkies also recruited two horse-friendly humans to be physically stressed (just after intense exercise) at the moment of the experiment to evaluate horses' reactions to individuals in physical distress in addition to those in emotional distress.
Then Merkies tested each horse's reactions to each of the humans individually by setting one animal at a time loose in a round pen for five minutes. A randomly chosen human subject stood blindfolded at the center of the round pen so as to not make eye contact with the horse. For five minutes the researchers observed the horse's reactions. During this time Merkies also measured both horse's and human's heart rates and observed and recorded various equine physical reactions.
Merkies determined that the more nervous the human, the lower the horse's heart rate. And over the five-minute period that the human was in the ring, the horse's heart rate would continue to decrease when in the presence of a nervous or physically stressed human, whereas they would increase when in the presence of a calm human. They also tended to keep their heads lower and move around less when they were with nervous humans.
"Horses are great intuitors, and they may be very sympathetic to the emotional state of humans," Merkies said. "This might also be due to the herd instinct, giving strength in numbers."
The study, considered a starting point for investigating horses' reactions to humans' emotional state, will be followed by further research using moving and interactive humans in various situations, she added.
"This initial study suggests that being physically or especially psychologically stressed around horses does not present an increased (safety) risk to the humans," Merkies said. "This could be particularly interesting with regard to the use of horses in equine therapy activities."
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.