Study Evaluates Pheromone Gel's Calming Effects on Horses

Study Evaluates Pheromone Gel's Calming Effects on Horses

EAP-treated horses were less stressed during the cognitive sessions after transport than the nontreated group, according to Cozzi.

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Does your horse have learning or performance problems under stress? Some semiochemicals might help.

According to a French-Italian equitation scientist, a little bit of the semiochemical--a chemical substance produced by an animal and used in communications, such as a pheromone--produced by lactating mares might help horses learn and perform better during or immediately after stressful situations.

"Our study highlights the interest in using and investigating the semiochemical approach to facilitate horses' adaptation process during a cognitive effort," said Alessandro Cozzi, PhD, DVM, MSc, head of the department of clinical sciences at the IRSEA Research Institute in Saint Saturnin les Apt, France.

Mares produce the Equine Maternal Appeasing Pheromone (EAP) during the first few days after foaling, Cozzi explained during the presentation of his research at the 2011 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Oct. 26-29 in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands. First identified in 2001, EAP is involved in the mare-foal bonding mechanism.

Cozzi recently tested the effect of applying a synthetic EAP analog gel into horses' nostrils 20 minutes before a one-hour trailer ride on performance post-transport.

In his experiment Cozzi randomly divided 23 horses into two groups: one treated with nasal EAP and one treated with a nasal placebo gel. To place them in a common stressful situation, all the horses were trailered for one-hour round trip, as transportation is now known to be a major source of stress for horses, Cozzi said. The horses' heart rates were evaluated and monitored as a stress indicator.

"We wanted to create a stressful situation that might actually happen in the normal life of a horse, and then to propose a cognitive task to evaluate the quality of performance after a stressful event with or without the semiochemical" he added.

Before the trip the horses had been successfully taught to choose a colored geometric shape (a blue triangle versus a yellow square) to receive a carrot. To study their capacity to adapt to changes of situation, after the trip the horses were asked to choose the opposite colored shape to get the carrot. Cozzi designed the after-transport test to focus exclusively on cognitive abilities and not physical effort in order to evaluate the EAP's impact during a cognitive task.

Evaluations of the horses' heart rate variability revealed that the EAP-treated horses were less stressed during the cognitive sessions after transport, according to Cozzi. This decreased stress appeared to allow the treated group to focus better on the reversal session and might explain their better performance than the untreated group.

"Stress is known to affect cognitive processes in most species," Cozzi said. "It is crucial to consider physiological changes and behavioral aspects during cognitive processes in order to manage and to better understand the emotional state of the horse and respect the welfare of this species."

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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