Does Parade Participation Stress Horses?

Does Parade Participation Stress Horses?

Horses' stress levels remained within the range of stress levels often seen during routine work and management. For example, galloping, jumping, and short-term social isolation cause similar cardiac changes.

Photo: iStock

You might enjoy parades’ celebratory settings and crowds, bright lights, loud music, and colorful floats, but would your horse? For many horses, such a scenario might seem like a recipe for a highly stressful experience. But, in reality, it might not be as agitating as we think.

Actually, parade settings might not actually cause more stress than other common conditions we put our horses into as part of their working life. Swiss researchers recently determined that, on average, stress parameters in horses participating in public parades don’t differ significantly from those caused by minor pain or short-term separation. And they’re much lower than what we see during transportation and weaning.

“Contrary to popular belief, public manifestations involving horses walking through large crowds and even galloping in groups around bonfires don’t seem to be a major source of stress that could be considered to compromise welfare,” said Ella Nina Novotny, MSc, of the University of Zurich Veterinary School’s Equine Department. She presented her work at the 2017 Swiss Equine Research Day, held April 6 in Avenches.

Furthermore, she added, very mild sedation had little effect on stress parameters in horses sedated for the event.

Novotny and her fellow researchers examined the stress parameters—fecal cortisol, heart rate, and heart rate variability—in 23 horses, from various backgrounds and with various levels of experience, riding in Switzerland’s annual Sechseläuten parade. The parade involves 500 horses walking a long path through the city streets, as well as a galloping session around a large “snowman” filled with fireworks that bursts into flames while the horses are circling.

For comparison’s sake, the researchers checked the same stress parameters before the actual event during a testing day, when the horses went through various ridden exercises in an unfamiliar location, but without a bonfire or crowd.

They found that fecal cortisol levels showed very little difference between the test day and the event itself, Novotny said. Heart rate and heart rate variability did, however, suggest an increase in the stress levels at the parade compared to the test event. But these levels still remained within the zones of stress levels often seen in domestic horses during routine work and management. For example, she said, galloping, jumping, and short-term social isolation cause similar cardiac changes.

Meanwhile, very light sedation seemed to have no significant effect compared to unsedated horses, Novotny added. Cortisol and cardiac rates among horses sedated (by owner decision) and not sedated were similar. However, more research needs to clarify why the study produced such findings, she added.

Horse experience did have a significant effect, though, Novotny said: The more years of experience with this parade the horses had, the lower their stress parameters remained.

“Stress levels do appear to increase in this kind of public manifestation, but they still seem to remain entirely within acceptable limits,” Novotny told The Horse.

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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