Study of ridden and unridden horse behaviour in an arena

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The title of this paper may be confusing and very scientific: “Sniff, look and loop excursions as the unit of “exploration” in the horse (Equus ferus caballis) when free or under saddle in an equestrian arena”, but it’s an area that will interest most horse owners. The two researchers, Burke and Whishaw, from Canada, monitored the behaviour of horses in an arena when ridden and when allowed to roam freely in there. They studied a total of 18 Thoroughbreds, mixed breed and American Quarter Horses of different age and sex. Behaviour when free or ridden was similar for the differences in breed, sex, age and experience. They found horses spent most of their time near the entrance door of the arena where they looked out, paced, and rolled. When they moved from the entrance door the horses went out and back in loops. When moving out they moved slower, often sniffing the ground, and ended with a head-raised, ears-forward look toward the far end of the arena. When coming back to the entrance they tended to move faster with the head lowered and ears back. If another horse was positioned at the other end of the arena, a horse shifted its activity toward the other horse. When horses were ridden and asked to make excursions into the arena but otherwise left unconstrained, they made loops, similar to that of freely moving horses. When ridden around the arena they returned more quickly to the near end of the arena than when leaving the near end of the arena. This fits with the experience of many riders that at competitions horses often are keener coming towards the collecting ring or that they can nap by the gate in an arena.

The authors suggested that “the home base/excursion activity of the horse can be incorporated into daily training. A trainer of reining horses, Vern Sapergia (1992), recommends that the first few minutes of every ride should belong to the horse and the present results suggest that this time should provide the opportunity for the rider to engage the horse in loops.” They also suggested that “The excursions should allow a horse to investigate the arena both by sniffing and by looking. If a horse is collected during warm-up it, it will not be able to sniff or visually inspect the arena (Harman et al., 1999). We suggest that allowing a horse to sniff, look and loop may not only allow it to explore the arena but also reduce its anxiety at the end of each excursion and so build confidence that any excursion will eventually return it to its home base.”

Link to full paper – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32006619

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