Horses Are More Relaxed With Familiar Humans – The Horse

People can develop real bonding relationships with horses. And when they do, the horses become “happy”, so to speak, to be close and touched by these people.

A new study by Italian researchers reveals that horses enter a positive emotional state – essentially, being more relaxed – when they see a familiar human who has developed a good relationship with them. And that positive emotional state increases when the person gently brushes the horse, said Chiara Scopa, PhD, a researcher at the National Reference Center for Animal-Assisted Interventions, Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Venice in Padua, Italy.

“By defining a ‘familiar human’ as someone with whom the animals have had multiple opportunities to interact and establish a relationship of positive emotional valence, we can positively state that horses are able to develop a bond. with them, ”said Scopa.

Testing heart rate and HRV to ‘read’ equine emotions

Scopa and his fellow researchers observed 23 mixed-breed horses in recreational stables as familiar and unfamiliar humans approached them in their stalls. Each familiar human was chosen by the stable staff as having developed a positive relationship with the tested horse. The unknown persons had experience with horses but had never “met” the horses in the study.

Scientists analyzed the horses’ heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) as they stood alone in a stall, when a human (familiar or unknown) quietly entered the stall and stopped , and that this human took a soft brush and groomed the horse on each side for a total of five minutes. The horses wore portable equipment as developed and tested by researchers at Feel-Ing srl, a spin-off of the Department of Information Engineering at the University of Pisa, Italy, which also collaborated on this study.

They found that horses had lower heart rates when grooming, regardless of the caregiver. However, their HRV rates differed significantly when interacting with familiar and unfamiliar humans. “These additional complex analyzes on the sympathovagal correlate (which is measured by HRV) revealed modulation of cardiovascular neural regulation related to the level of familiarity of the manipulator,” said co-author Laura Contalbrigo, DVM, PhD, also of the National Italian Reference center for animal-assisted interventions.

“In other words, by measuring the sympathovagal balance of the horses, we were able to verify that the horses show different reactions whether they are in the presence of familiar or unfamiliar humans,” Contalbrigo said. “By correctly interpreting physiological activity, it is in fact possible to ‘read’ the emotional state of the animal.”

The horse-man relationship is complex

These readings suggest that the horse-human relationship is very complex and depends on the history of the relationship as well as the types of interactions present. For example, horses had HRVs that indicated a much more positive emotional state than just resting when familiar humans brushed them to either side. But with unfamiliar humans, horses seemed to have a little more positive emotions while brushing only when that person brushed against their left side.

“We cannot indeed just focus on contact with people alone, but on the different levels in which this contact can take place, of not being able to see each other, of sharing the same area, of having the opportunity. from physical contact, ”Contalbrigo mentioned.

“Would you say that your level of familiarity with a particular person is only caused by your ability to recognize them? Or do you think your level of familiarity has the potential to affect your emotional states? She continued. “We believe that the idea that the behaviors and emotional states of horses are simply adapted to simple cause and effect reactions should be expanded and explored further. As we can see from this study, in fact, it is their emotional world that motivates their reactions and calibrates the different ways they interact with people.

A relationship built on positive experiences, day in and day out

This team’s study reinforces an idea that many horses have believed for years: that the horse-human relationship begins with a series of daily interactions, and that in order to be a positive relationship, the interactions themselves must be positive, said co-author Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, researcher and professor specializing in the horse-human relationship at the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Pisa.

“Just as it happens with dogs and humans, horses develop a relationship with subjects that are present in their daily lives,” said Baragli. “The relationship is based on the subjective experience and the specific memory of each encounter, and whether it is bad or good, we nevertheless leave behind a kind of ‘imprint’. Our goal should always be to develop a positive bond, keeping in mind that horses get to know us through our actions, which are constantly tagged.

This is especially true when it comes to physical touch, he added. “It’s hard to think of a human-horse activity that doesn’t include some form of contact, and the bonding process, in fact, begins with physical contact,” said Baragli. “The information gathered through the body is mainly used to anticipate the movements of the partner (both horse and human); bodily contact is an emotional channel of connection between the individuals who interact. The occurrence of repeated encounters over the long term is useful for both motor coordination and socio-emotional engagement between liaison subjects.

It is for this reason that the scientists also framed the study, which was funded by the Italian Ministry of Health, as a tool to improve animal-assisted interventions (AAI) as well as animal welfare and the study of emotional intelligence in horses, said Scopa.

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