Research: Mirrors Help Reduce Stress and Social Isolation

A research team at The Lincolnshire School of Agriculture, located near the town of Grantham in the English county of Lincolnshire, recently released the results of a study showing that horses are more content and relaxed if acrylic mirrors are fitted inside their stables.

Stall-kept horses which become frustrated, bored, or stressed often develop the habit (often considered a stable vice) of swaying their necks and heads from side to side in a motion which is known as "weaving." The researchers who conducted the study fitted acrylic mirrors on stable walls. They found that horses which normally exhibited such behavior as weaving either stopped or considerably reduced it within 24 hours.

Daniel Mills, DVM, a lecturer at the University of Lincoln (the Lincolnshire School of Agriculture is a part of the university) and a member of the Animal Behavior, Cognition, and Welfare Group, was a researcher in the study. He commented, "The weaving behavior stopped almost instantaneously. Some of the horses in this experiment had been displaying this mannerism for six years."

While it is not known how or why mirrors reduce weaving, the scientists on the research team believe that in mimicking visual contact with another horse, the image acts as a distraction, reducing the feeling of confinement and social isolation.

Among many interesting facts that emerged from the study was that the horses spent more than a quarter of the time inside the stable facing the mirrors. This did not, however, affect the amount of time each horse spent gazing out of the stable door or dozing. When the mirrors were removed, the horses did not immediately resume the weaving behavior.

"It is not good to see horses making these strange movements," Mills said. "Weaving is a sign of social frustration, and it is apparent that these creatures should not be kept in social isolation."

A traditional method of preventing weaving is the erection of bars within stables. Jonathan Cooper, PhD, another member of the research team, is firmly against this method of restraint. "The behavior of a horse is frustrated by these bars. They still want to weave, and so become very stressed."

A strong caution was issued by the researchers warning horse owners not to fit glass mirrors in the stables since they are not shatterproof. Plans are being made to develop easy-to-install acrylic mirrors, similar to those used in the study, that could be made available as a commercial product.

About the Author

Harry Pope

Harry Pope is a free-lance writer and cartoonist. The Canadian horse lover and recreational rider lives in Woodville, Ontario.

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