Monday, August 28, 2023

Attitudes towards ban on trimming horse whiskers


(c) Tnmkiley
Only 30% of Australian show horse owners who took part in a recent survey supported the ban
on trimming facial hair.

Although trimming of horses’ whiskers isn’t thought to be painful, many authorities have banned it on welfare grounds.


Whiskers, also known as sensory hairs or vibrissae, are hair-like structures present around a horse's eyes and muzzle. They play a role in conveying sensory information about the horse's environment and surroundings, aiding in tasks such as recognizing grass textures and enhancing spatial awareness. These whiskers are crucial because they balance out the blind spots in front of the horse's forehead and under its nose. This helps overcome the limitations these blind spots place on the horse's awareness of its environment.


The German Equestrian Federation (FN) took the lead in 1998 by implementing the first ban on trimming whiskers and ear hairs of competitive horses, making it officially prohibited.

Subsequently, in July 2020, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) followed suit and enforced a similar ban, except in cases where individual sensory hairs had been removed by a veterinarian to alleviate the horse's pain or discomfort.


In 2022, British Dressage introduced a rule change that unequivocally prohibited the practice of trimming facial hairs. They stated that trimming the sensory hairs around the horse's mouth, nose, eyes, and ears was not allowed as it could impair the horse's sensory capabilities.


New research, published in the CABI journal Human-Animal Interactions, has revealed that only 30% of show horse owners surveyed in Australia agreed with a ban on the trimming of facial hair prior to its implementation in July 2022


The study discovered that when people were questioned about whether facial hair trimming should be prohibited in all horse competitions, most disciplines were generally in favour (ranging from 60.5% to 84.6%), except for showing, where only 22.9% of those surveyed supported a ban. Interestingly, some participants in the research also held the view that horses didn't require muzzle or ear hairs for their daily lives.


The study emphasized that individuals who participated in horse show competitions thought that trimming muzzle and ear hair increased their chances of winning, and they considered this practice to be usual and widespread in their field. Nevertheless, equine organizations worldwide, including those in Australia, implemented a ban on this practice during competitions due to concerns about animal welfare. 


Researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of Newcastle in Australia conducted a survey involving 422 horse owners in Australia. Among these respondents, 85% took part in competitions with their horses, with showing and dressage being the most popular categories. The majority of those surveyed were women (96%) residing in South Australia (56%). The participants represented a diverse age range, spanning from 18 to 24 years old up to 55 to 64 years old, and there were fewer respondents over the age of 65. 


The primary goal of the study was to assess the prevalence of horse owners trimming their horses' facial hairs (ear and muzzle hair) in various equestrian disciplines in Australia. The researchers aimed to understand which facial hairs were commonly trimmed, whether horses were restrained during the process, and the attitudes associated with this practice.


Dr Kirrilly Thompson, a co-author on the paper, from the University of Newcastle, Australia, said, “The results of this study provide valuable insight into the widespread trimming of horse muzzle and ear hairs in some horse disciplines prior to the implementation of the ban in Australia in July 2022.


“The information gained may also be useful for the design and implementation of behaviour change interventions for other management and presentation practices used for horses and other animals.”


The researchers pointed out the scarcity of studies investigating the methods of facial hair trimming in horses and people's attitudes towards this practice. They emphasized that their study offers preliminary insights into the prevalence of this practice in Australian equestrian sports before the introduction of bans. Furthermore, their research sheds light on the rationales and perspectives within the equine industry concerning the trimming of horse facial hairs.


Dr Susan Hazel, lead author of the research, from the University of Adelaide, said, “Further studies are needed to determine if and how the practice and attitudes to facial hair trimming in horses have changed with the enforcement of the ban.


“Findings from the present study, however, may also be useful for understanding and addressing other non-regulated horse presentation practices that can compromise welfare, such as clipping hair from the ear canal and ‘pulling’ manes and tails.”


For more details, see:


What’s the fuzz: The frequency, practice and perceptions of equine facial hair trimming revealed in survey of horse owners in Australia, 

Susan Hazel; Carly Holman; Kirrilly Thompson. 

Human-Animal Interactions, (2023)

DOI: 10.1079/hai.2023.0023

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Horses know when you are happy or sad


A horse in the experimental set-up, wearing the heart rate monitor belt.
Two video projectors at the back of the testing box project images
onto two screens in front of the horse. Photo: Plotine Jordan
New research shows that horses can distinguish between human expressions of happiness and sadness conveyed through facial movements or vocal tones. The study found that horses were more attracted by facial expressions of happiness than sadness, and they seemed more excited by the happy voices. 

Emotions are a part of how people interact and talk to each other, and they could also play a role when we interact with other species. 


Many types of animals, as diverse as orangutans and pigeons, are known to sense human emotions. Recently, studies on domestic animals such as dogs, cats, horses, and goats have shown they can recognize various human emotions shown on our faces. However, this area of research has mainly focused on two emotions: joy and anger. What about other emotions, such as sadness?


The study, conducted by an international research team from the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) in France, the University of Tours in France and the University of Turku in Finland, observed and analysed horses’ behaviour when presented with human faces and voices expressing joy or sadness. The heart rate of the horses was also recorded during the experiment.


“Sadness is a particularly interesting emotion, because it is not only of negative valence – contrary to joy, which is positive – but it is also of low arousal. Previous studies have shown that horses react to high-arousal emotions like anger or joy. Could they also detect signals of sadness, a low-arousal emotion? We wanted to study whether horses can associate the vocal and facial signals of human sadness, as they can for joy and anger,” says the lead author of the study, Doctoral Researcher Plotine Jardat from the French National Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment and the University of Tours, France.


During the study, horses faced two screens. One showed a video of a person looking happy, while the other showed the same person looking sad. At the same time, a voice played, either sounding happy or sad.


The horses’ first look indicated they matched the face and voice expressing sadness or happiness. The researchers noticed that when the horses first saw the pictures, more of them spent longer looking at the picture that didn't match the sound, compared to the one that did match.


So, when the horses looked at the pictures for the first time, they were surprised when a sad face was paired with a happy voice, and the other way around. The researchers suggest this implies that horses can link a human face and voice showing the same emotion, whether it's sadness or happiness.


“This is interesting because it would mean that when horses observe our faces and hear our voices, they don’t just see and hear separate things, but they are able to match them across different modalities. You could imagine that they have a particular box in their mind labelled ‘human sadness’ containing the characteristics of both a human sad face and a human sad voice,” says Doctoral Researcher Océane Liehrmann from the University of Turku.

A similar setup has been used in several previous experiments by the team. Its purpose is to explore the animals’ mental processing of the images and sounds and their congruence. In the previous experiments on anger and joy as well as on the perception of adults and children, the horses reacted to the setup by looking more at the image that did not match the sound. The researchers believe that horses look more at the incongruent image because they are intrigued by the lack of correspondence between this image and what they hear.


After the first glance, the researchers saw that horses paid more attention to the screen displaying the happy face. They looked at it more often and for a longer time. Also, the horses’ heart rates went up more when they heard the happy voice compared to the sad one. This indicates that the horses were more alert and excited when the voice was joyful.


The researchers suggest three possible explanations for these findings. First, the horses might have been more interested in the happy images due to their movement, and more excited by the joyful voices because of the way they sounded, like changes in pitch. Second, the horses could have connected human happy faces with positive situations, making them want to look at these expressions that remind them of good memories. Third, the horses might have felt more positive when looking at the happy pictures and more stimulated when hearing joyful voices due to something called "emotional contagion." This is when the emotions of an observer match the emotions of the one they're observing. It has been seen in humans and primates, and studies suggest it could also happen between humans and other animals, like horses. This phenomenon is often seen as a basis for empathy.


“Overall, our study shows that horses can differentiate audible and visual signals of human joy and sadness, and associate the corresponding vocal and facial expressions. Horses were also more attracted and seemed more animated by joyful expressions, so people who interact with horses could benefit from expressing joy during these interactions,” Plotine Jardat concludes.


The researchers point out that further studies are needed to better understand horses’ perception of human sadness. In the future, they aim to find out, for example, whether horses can also differentiate sadness from other negative emotions, or whether sad expressions from humans can influence horses’ behaviour, especially during human-horse interactions.

For more details, see:

Horses discriminate between human facial and vocal expressions of sadness and joy. 

Plotine Jardat, Océane Liehrmann, Fabrice Reigner, Céline Parias, Ludovic Calandreau & Léa Lansade 

Anim Cogn (2023) 26, 1733–1742

Participants sought for behaviour study

 Would you like to help advance scientific research on horse behaviour? If you are 18 years old or older and own at least one horse, you can help to better understand the human-horse relationship by taking part in an online survey.

The survey is part of a research project conducted by Alisa Viitanen, Oceane Liehrman and Prof. Virpi Lummaa from the University of Turku, Finland. The survey aims to investigate how human and horse personality interact and how this is reflected in the horse's environment and behaviour. 


To accomplish this, they are looking for participants who are at least 18 years old and own at least one horse. The survey can be completed for multiple horses if applicable.


If you decide to participate, the researchers say that the survey will take at least 40 minutes to complete, but you can stop and come back to it later on the same device. 


In the survey, you will be asked to provide responses to personality assessments for both yourself and your horse. Additionally, information about your interactions with your horse and details regarding your horse's living environment will be requested. You can fill the survey anonymously, and you retain the option to withdraw your consent and prohibit the use of your information at a later point.


By taking part in the study, you will help researchers to get a better insight to the human-horse relationship and how it may affect horse behaviour.


For more details, and to fill out the survey, go to:

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Prospects for osteo-arthritis treatment

(c) Goce Risteski
Researchers have unveiled a treatment that appears to slow down the progression of osteoarthritis (OA)
for the first time. 

A clinical study conducted jointly by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the University of Gothenburg has yielded remarkable results. Horses afflicted with OA, treated with a novel drug combination, not only achieved freedom from lameness but also experienced a simultaneous inhibition of joint tissue degradation. 


Osteoarthritis (OA), a degenerative disease involving the whole joint, arises from the deterioration of joint cartilage and the underlying bone structure. This condition is the primary cause of joint pain and lameness in horses. Racehorses often become lame early in their careers, and every year many horses retire due to the disease.


The new potential treatment for OA is a result of a long-term collaboration between researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the University of Gothenburg, resulting in a series of basic science publications. Through extensive cell culture studies, the researchers had been able to evaluate and present a drug combination consisting of a local anaesthetic drug and an anti-inflammatory drug (sildenafil), in extremely low concentrations, When coupled with glucose, this combination demonstrated the capacity to rejuvenate and repair damaged cartilage cells, known as chondrocytes, extracted from horses affected with OA.


“We have successfully demonstrated the drugs’ potential in receding inflammation and in restoring derailed chondrocytes from OA horses. Such restored cartilage cells began to produce more matrix molecules, which are important building blocks of cartilage tissue. This further strengthens the drug combinations’ potential to cure osteoarthritis," says Elisabeth Hansson, professor at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, who is one of the research leaders in the collaboration.


The research team has developed assays to screen horses’ synovial fluid from the joints and diagnose OA much earlier, i.e. even before the clinical indications of OA. They have found two biomarkers that are elevated in both synovial fluid and blood, in horses with OA. 


These biomarkers, (BGN262 , which reflects subchondral bone degradation, and COMP156 which  is associated with articular cartilage degradation in equine early OA) have been crucial in the development of the new drug treatment.


The current clinical study, published in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage Open, uses these assay methods both to diagnose the disease and to measure the efficacy of the new drug treatment.


"With the aid of these biomarkers, we can now diagnose the disease in an early stage (which was not possible previously), measure the efficacy of the drug and also screen for the drugs’ side effects," says Eva Skiöldebrand, professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.


In this study, the new drug combination was tested in a randomised triple-blinded controlled clinical trial. The study was conducted at Hallands Djursjukhus (Kungsbacka Hästklinik). Principal investigator, Kristin Abrahamsson-Aurell was responsible for the study with veterinarian Cecilia Grahn as the treating veterinarian. 


Twenty lame trotters with mild radiological changes in the carpal joint were included in the study. The horses were randomised into groups for treatment with the novel drug combination or with a standard treatment (betamethasone  - Celeston® bifas®). The horses were followed up for 60 days after treatment.


“The horses treated with the new drug combination became free from lameness. The drug treatment efficiently lowered the analysed biomarkers’ levels in the synovial fluid when compared to the horses that received the control substance. The drug intervention did not cause any side effects in this study. Moreover, several of the treated horses remained sound during the follow up period, which gives great hope for the future of the drug as a disease-modifying agent. This will have a tremendous positive impact on horse welfare,” says Eva Skiöldebrand


In Sweden, OA is also the most common joint disease in humans, especially among the elderly. About one in four people over the age of 45 develop osteoarthritis. Currently there is no cure for this. Moreover, the available drugs on the market can only reduce pain and limit inflammation in the joint.


“Horses and humans are genetically very similar. Horses develop OA spontaneously, which makes the horse an excellent model for studies of OA in humans. Additionally, the biomarkers that were identified and evaluated in the clinical trial are identical in horses and humans. Therefore, the biomarkers and the analytical methods are equally relevant in human OA," says Eva Skiöldebrand.


The research team has a patent for the new drug combination and aims to commercialise it as a licensed drug for horses with OA, starting in Sweden. They will now also seek authorisation to conduct a clinical trial of the drug treatment in humans.


For more details, see:


A randomized, triple-blinded controlled clinical study with a novel disease-modifying drug combination in equine lameness-associated osteoarthritis. 

E. Skiöldebrand, S. Adepu, C. Lützelschwab, S. Nyström, A. Lindahl, K. Abrahamsson-Aurell, E. Hansson. 

Osteoarthritis and Cartilage Open, Volume 5, Issue 3, 2023.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

What do retired racehorses do?

(c) Nigel Baker

 Britain’s first ever thoroughbred census has been launched to help improve traceability of former racehorses after they retire from the sport.

All ex-racehorse owners are urged to participate by completing the census before the deadline of December 31, 2023.


The census is being conducted by equine research specialists at Hartpury University and is designed to address a significant data gap arising from the infrequent updates to equine passports once thoroughbreds retire from racing.


By collecting information such as equine identification document (passport) numbers, microchip numbers, ages, current residences, second careers, and more, the census hopes to construct a comprehensive and detailed database concerning the lives of former racehorses.


Partnering with key bodies like Retraining of Racehorses (RoR), the official aftercare charity of British Racing, the census is supported by the Racing Foundation, World Horse Welfare, and Weatherbys General Stud Book. 


By enhancing the traceability of retired thoroughbreds, it is hoped it will be easier to support owners in terms of access to educational resources, avenues for participation in competitions, and the cultivation of informed and supportive communities.


It is also expected that this data-driven approach will improve communication in the event of an equine disease outbreak, safeguarding the equine population. 


Ultimately, the census endeavours to bring about positive transformations in the aftercare and welfare of retired racehorses in Britain.


Jane Williams, Head of Research at Hartpury University, stated: “We’re delighted to be part of this proactive initiative as Hartpury is committed to supporting the equine sector to improve the quality of life of the horses we all love. The census will present an opportunity to understand more about the lifetime care of thoroughbreds, generate evidence to safeguard against future disease outbreaks, and showcase the huge benefits thoroughbreds bring to so many people.”


David Catlow, Managing Director, Retraining of Racehorses, added: “We are pleased to be teaming up with the Horse Welfare Board and Hartpury University to encourage owners of former racehorses to participate in the census survey. The ‘social licence’ for the use of horses in sport is under increasing scrutiny and what happens to former racehorses after they retire from racing is identified as a particular concern. This is a significant step towards ensuring thoroughbreds enjoy a healthy and caring existence during their lifetimes and will provide the racing industry with the relevant data to guide future decisions”. 

For more details, and to complete the census, see: