Study: Horse's Stress Levels Increase During Events

Horses might experience increased stress during equestrian events and competitions, but that stress appears relatively mild and might even be beneficial according to new research by Austrian, German, and French equitation scientists.

By measuring cortisol levels in adult horses' saliva before and after various events, researchers noted that stress increased significantly during the event but usually decreased rapidly, said Christine Aurich, DVM, PhD, professor at the Graf Lehndorff Institute and at the University of Veterinary Sciences in Vienna and senior author of the study. The analysis of levels of cortisol--often called "the stress hormone"--has become recognized in recent years as an accurate measure of stress.

Equestrian events investigated in the study included presentation for sale, classical school above-ground presentations, advanced classical dressage, and standard dressage and show jumping competitions. Saliva was collected for testing an hour and a half-hour before the event as well as immediately after the event and then five, 15, 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes later. Cortisol levels returned to their pre-event values within approximately an hour for all events except the competitions, Aurich said. After competitions, levels were significantly reduced, but still not back to pre-event levels even two hours after the competition.

In all cases, the cortisol levels were still lower than those of young horses undergoing initial training under saddle, horses being transported, and especially horses undergoing colic surgery or castration, Aurich added.

"This stress response has to be considered physiological, and it enables the horses to deal with the situations they are confronted with," she said.

The increase in cortisol levels during events was lower for older and more experienced horses, according to Aurich. "Our research demonstrated that even though they have stress responses, they get used to the events, and thus the stress response decreases over time," she said.

Some of the cortisol values are related to physical stress from exercise alone, Aurich said. But many of the horses had increased cortisol levels before the event while being prepared in the stables, in "anticipation of riding and competition ... and this is certainly not caused by physical exercise," she said.

This current study is one part of a much larger research project investigating the kinds of stress horses endure because of human intervention, according to Aurich. Part of the trinational research programme is conducted in cooperation with the Ecole Nationale d`Equitation in Saumur, France.

Mareike Becker-Birck, DrMedVet, from the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science in Neustadt, Germany, and primary author of the current study, presented their work during the sixth International Equitation Science Conference in Uppsala, Sweden, on July 31.

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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