Rein tension is used to apply pressure to control both ridden and unridden horses. The pressure is delivered by equipment such as the bit, which may restrict voluntary movement and cause changes in behavior and physiology. Managing the effects of such pressure on arousal level and behavioral indicators will optimise horse learning outcomes. This study examined the effect of training horses to turn away from bit pressure on cardiac outcomes and behavior (including responsiveness) over the course of eight trials in a standardised learning task. The experimental procedure consisted of a resting phase, treatment/control phase, standardised learning trials requiring the horses (n = 68) to step backwards in response to bit pressure and a recovery phase. As expected, heart rate increased (P = 0.028) when the handler applied rein tension during the treatment phase. The amount of rein tension required to elicit a response during treatment was higher on the left than the right rein (P = 0.009). Total rein tension required for trials reduced (P < 0.001) as they progressed, as did time taken (P < 0.001) and steps taken (P < 0.001). The incidence of head tossing decreased (P = 0.015) with the progression of the trials and was higher (P = 0.018) for the control horses than the treated horses. These results suggest that preparing the horses for the lesson and slightly raising their arousal levels, improved learning outcomes.
Fenner K, Webb H, Starling MJ, Freire R, Buckley P, McGreevy PD (2017) Effects of preconditioning on behavior and physiology of horses during a standardised learning task. PLoS ONE 12 (3): e0174313. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0174313