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.
Does simply the thought of competing or riding in front of a crowd of people cause your heart to race and stress to set in? You're probably not alone. But rest assured: Even if you're feeling a little weak in the knees from all those eyes watching you, your trusty steed probably isn't. Equitation scientists recently learned that audiences, large or small, have little to no effect on experienced horses' stress levels.
According to Mareike Becker-Birck, PhD, researcher at the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science in Neustadt, Germany, show horses have no more parasympathetic (nervous and hormonal) stress reactions during public performances than they do during training, even if their riders do. Becker-Birck presented study results supporting this conclusion at the 8th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
To come to this conclusion, Becker-Birck and colleagues employed eight geldings--classical dressage horses from the French National Equestrian School in Saumur--and their seven male riders during a dress rehearsal and during a public performance in front of hundreds of spectators. Both activities occurred at their home arena in Saumur.
The team measured each horse's and human's salivary cortisol ("stress hormone") levels, heart rates, and heart rate variability (which appears to be a more specific stress indicator than heart rate alone). They also evaluated two other heart rate variables--the standard deviation of beat-to-beat interval and the root mean square of successive beat-to-beat intervals--to further investigate the horses' and humans' stress.
For both horses and humans, cortisol levels and heart rates rose during both the rehearsal and the actual performance, compared to shortly before each activity. The humans' heart rates increased much more during the show performance than during the rehearsal.The horses' heart rates, however, remained essentially the same for both the performance and the rehearsal. The other cardiac variables supported the heart rate results, indicating that the riders were more stressed during the public performance compared to training than were the horses.
That said, the horses had a higher cortisol level on show day than they did at the training session. However, Becker-Birck noted that cortisol was already elevated before the horses were saddled up on performance day as compared to on the training day.
"It's likely that these horses were stressed by the people actually coming through the stables to see the horses before the show, and this set their cortisol levels off on the day of public performance from the beginning," she said.
Nonetheless, the higher cortisol readings did not affect the horses' cardiac readings by the time they entered the arena, Becker-Birck added.
"The presence of an audience caused more pronounced sympathoadrenal activity in riders than in the same tasks without spectators," Becker-Birck said. "So the spectators induced an acute stress response in the riders, but at the same time (caused) no additional stress on the horses."
And it might be reassuring to know that even if you're stressed, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll "spread" that stress to your horse, Becker-Birck added.
While she noted that all horses and riders respond differently to stressful situations, "this more pronounced (stress) response of the riders was not conferred onto these experienced horses," she concluded.
Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.