Pleasant vs. Stern Human Voice's Effect on Horses

Pleasant vs. Stern Human Voice's Effect on Horses


Admit it: You talk to your horse. We all do it. We know perfectly well they can't understand the words we're saying, but shouldn't they be able to infer things from our tone of voice?

For instance, your horse might appear to relax when you speak in a soothing tone. But is it just coincidence? Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor and equine program coordinator at the University of Guelph in Ontario, tested this theory and presented her study results at the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.
"Anecdotally it is believed that speaking in a calm voice will inspire calm behavior in the horse," she said. 
To test this she and her colleagues placed eight draft horse geldings individually in a small round pen and videotaped each one for 10 minutes. After five minutes of recording the horses' baseline behaviors and heart rate at five-second intervals, a familiar human approached and stood near the pen. Simultaneously, one of four voice recordings played for a 10-second duration.
The voices were pleasant low tone, pleasant high tone, stern low tone, and stern high tone. The researchers noted the horses' behaviors every second during the duration of the voice recording and for 10 seconds following. They then scored each horse's gait, head position, ear position, and body position for each tone and found that:
  • Horses moved at a faster gait when a stern low voice played and displayed the least movement when the pleasant low voice played.
  • Horses carried the head lowest when no human or sound was present, but all horses raised their heads in the presence of a human or a sound.
  • Horses oriented their body toward the human more often when a pleasant tone played.
  • Horses oriented their ears more toward the sound if the human was present.
  • Human presence did not affect the horses' heart rates, but sound did. The greatest increase in heart rate occurred with the stern low voice.
"These results indicate that horses appear less distressed when a human is present speaking in a pleasant voice and show more distress if a stern voice is heard, particularly in a low tone," Merkies concluded, noting that it wasn't clear whether horses were responding to the tone alone, or the tone combined with the human's body language. "The horseman's tenet that speaking in a calm voice helps to calm the horse appears to be true. This is important knowledge for horse trainers and facilitators working with students around horses." 
See the horses' responses to the different voice recordings in this short study video.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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