"Conflict Behavior" Evaluation Varies Among Horse Professionals

There's a new term that describes the actions of our horses in response to our unclear cues or handling: "conflict behavior." Horses showing conflict behavior might buck, rear, toss their heads, gape their mouths, or try to escape their handlers, to name a few examples, and they might get labeled with adjectives such as "stubborn" or "naughty."

But just exactly what kind of behavior is considered "conflict" behavior, as well as how severe it is, varies from one horse professional to another, according to recent research presented at the sixth International Equitation Science Conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES 2010) in Uppsala, Sweden, on July 31.

In a study led by Sara Nyman, DVM, PhD, researcher at the Department of Research and Education of Flyinge (Sweden), experienced trainers, dressage judges, and equine veterinarians were asked to evaluate horses' reactive behavior to tight-reined lunging. The horses had been filmed in an experimental setting, and seven short clips from the resulting films were played for the horse professionals. The professionals were asked to describe any signs of mental stress they found—primarily gaping, resistance, tongue movements, head tossing, and rearing—and give them severity grades of 0 to 7.

Nyman and her colleagues found that the responses varied widely within each category (trainers, judges, or veterinarians) and also from one category to another. In particular, the experienced trainers were more accepting of conflict behavior, rating the severity of the negative actions significantly lower than the other two groups did, Nyman said.

The professionals also tended to describe the same actions with a considerably different vocabulary from one another. For example, whereas some professionals said, "The horse is not supple enough and fights the bit," others commented, "The lack of release of rein tension makes the horse tense, and it tries to escape the pressure by gaping and shortening its neck," according to Nyman.

"Despite these people being very experienced horse professionals, they used very different terminology and thereby judged the behaviors accordingly," she said. About one third of the respondents blamed the horse or the equipment, while the rest blamed the way the horses were treated.

"It is clear that evaluation of conflict behavior differs both within and between categories of horse professionals," said Nyman while presenting her results at ISES 2010. "For the welfare of the horse, an increased communication between horse professionals and an improved understanding of basic learning theories are crucial."

To address these needs, ISES will hold its 2011 conference in Utrecht, The Netherlands, during the nearby Global Dressage Forum, so as to provide a lieu of productive exchange among the different categories of horse professionals, Nyman said.

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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