Behavioral Research Blog

Best reads of 2015

Posted by Natasja Bogers on Dec 31, 2015

It’s that time of year again. We’re nearing the end of 2015 and with only hours to go before kicking off a brand new year, we wanted to look back one more time. These are the best read blog posts on the Behavioral Research Blog in 2015!
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Topics: mice, FaceReader, horses, rats, sport, 2015

Which head and neck positions are stressful for your horse during lunging?

Posted by Linda Hoekstra on Apr 17, 2015

Being a horse owner and a Noldus employee is the perfect combination when it comes to keeping track of the scientific background for my horseback riding hobby. Since horses communicate differently than humans, I always wonder if I have a “happy athlete” when we are exercising together. Esmee Smiet and colleagues recently investigated the effects of different head and neck positions (HNPs) on behavior, heart rate variability (HRV) and cortisol levels in lunged Royal Dutch Sport horses. Interestingly, they were able to find significant differences in stress response between different head and neck positions, suggesting that there are indeed low stress and high stress ways to exercise your horse.  

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Topics: The Observer XT, horses, physiology, stress research

Top 14 of last year’s animal behavior research blog posts

Posted by G. Smit on Dec 30, 2014

We cannot stay behind when it comes to the end-of-year lists, so here is a top 14 of 2014’s most popular animal behavior posts on our Noldus behavioral research blog. (For a top 3 on human behavior research, see this post) As expected, the list is dominated by zebrafish research, but it’s not the topic of our most read post!

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Topics: mice, social behavior research, dogs, horses, zebrafish, learning and memory, open field test, anxiety research, rats, wolves, caterpillars, 2014, crayfish

Hold Your Horses! Understanding horse behavior

Posted by Annelies Verkerk on Sep 30, 2014

What a horse likes to eat: how to test dietary preferences

When humans are given a choice of food, we usually go for the best-tasting option. Animals also have a preference in which food they eat, although theirs is not based on taste necessarily, but on nutritional value. This choice feeding can be used to learn more about an animal’s nutritional needs and dietary preferences. However, in animals such as horses, there is a long gut transit time, which means that the horse may have difficulty making the connection between which chosen food has which nutritional consequence. So what can be done about this? Redgate and colleagues looked into the addition of a monadic phase (a phase in which only one food was offered at a time instead of all of the options) to choice testing. For this study, researchers wanted to see how a monadic training phase would impact the horse’s choice of food and if voluntary intake and feeding behavior would be influenced if the energy content was constant, but the macronutrient diet was different. Read more...

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Topics: horses

What a horse likes to eat: how to test dietary preferences

Posted by Julie Harrison on Aug 25, 2014

When humans are given a choice of food, we usually go for the best-tasting option. Animals also have a preference in which food they eat, although theirs is not based on taste necessarily, but on nutritional value. This choice feeding can be used to learn more about an animal’s nutritional needs and dietary preferences. However, in animals such as horses, there is a long gut transit time, which means that the horse may have difficulty making the connection between which chosen food has which nutritional consequence. So what can be done about this? Redgate and colleagues looked into the addition of a monadic phase (a phase in which only one food was offered at a time instead of all of the options) to choice testing. For this study, researchers wanted to see how a monadic training phase would impact the horse’s choice of food and if voluntary intake and feeding behavior would be influenced if the energy content was constant, but the macronutrient diet was different.

The experiment

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Topics: The Observer XT, horses, feeding behavior,

Combining physiology and behavior to create a stress scale for horses

Posted by Annelies Verkerk on Jul 2, 2013

We all are familiar with stress, and how it can have an impact not only on our behavior, but on our bodies and physiology as well. Many people get stress headaches or start to feel sick if they reach high levels of stress. However, most studies use scales which focus on behavioral scores for animals and don’t account for the physiological responses to stress. Young et al.’s goal was to create a scale that could rapidly and reliably measure stress in domestic stable horses while integrating both behavioral and physiological measures.


Mixed results in previous studies
One thing to note is that there have been mixed results in studies which have tried to correlate physiological measures with behavioral measures. Some studies have had success and found links between the two, where others have found no link or correlation between the behavioral and physiological measures they were studying.

Using husbandry routines for evaluating stress
For this study, a sample of 32 horses (a mixture of various breeds of mares and geldings) were used, and all of the horses were kept on similar exercise and management routines. The goal was to use behavioral and physiological measures to analyze stress levels in domestic horses during everyday husbandry routines. The four husbandry procedures used in this study were the sound of electric coat clippers, social isolation, grooming procedures, and the sound of fireworks played on a CD. Each husbandry procedure lasted 10 minutes, the amount of time researchers predicted that a stress response would occur in.

Recording behavior using The Observer XT
The behavior of the horses during the husbandry procedures was recorded on video and The Observer XT was used for 12 horses to analyze the first five minutes of the behavioral reaction to the husbandry procedure. (This used a pre-defined ethogram, which can be found in the paper.) A panel of 13 expert members was also compiled. These panel members gave behavioral scores of 1-10 on how stressed they thought the horse was. They were also asked to describe the horse’s behavior at this score and to note when they thought the onset of stress occurred.

Physiological measures
The physiological measures used in this experiment were heart rate and salivary cortisol, because these were able to be noted through non-invasive means. For both, a control group was also used to make sure the procedures used for measuring these didn’t affect the stress level of the horses. Heart rate was noted directly before the procedure and five minutes into it. Saliva was collected several times before and after the husbandry procedure. Principal component analysis, a mathematical procedure which reduces a complex data set to values that are simple and easier to understand, was used to look for links between behavioral and physiological changes.

Making a scale
The descriptive terms given by the panel members were combined for horses with the same behavioral scores. Based on the behavioral scores given, researchers determined three levels of stress – no stress, low stress, and medium stress (the high stress category was added later by researchers but was not observed). For no stress, the horse had to have a behavioral score of 1 or 2, for low stress, a score of 3 or 4, and medium stress was 5 and up. Principal component analysis did not include behavioral scores for a fourth level, but researchers also added a category for high stress, which were behavioral scores of 8-10.

A scale reflecting behavioral and physiological stress
This study was successful in creating a scale that used physiological measures to add to the behavioral measures used to determine stress in domestic stable horses. It was found that with the husbandry procedures of the sound of fireworks being played and grooming, the salivary cortisol levels were higher than when the clippers were on or the horse was socially isolated. This led Young et al. to determine that there was a correlation between salivary control and the same horse’s behavioral score during husbandry procedures. This confirmed that the final scale created reflected both behavioral and physiological stress, and can be used as a valuable cost-effective tool.

  • Young, T.; Creighton, E.; Smith, T.; Hosie, C. (2012). A novel scale of behavioural indicators of stress for use with domestic horses. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 140, 33-43.
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Topics: The Observer XT, horses, heart rate monitoring, mobile observation, behavioral research

Horse training methods: The importance of behavioral analysis

Posted by G. Smit on May 10, 2012

Nowadays there are many different methods to train a horse. Looking at equitation sciences, it seems you can distinguish al least two different training strategies applied and investigated. First, there is the ‘natural’ way of horsemanship that allows the horse to evaluate action and reaction. This is often claimed to be the “new” way, but it actually seems based on very ancient methods. The other extreme is horsemanship that is based on desensitizing or ‘overruling’ of the animal.

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Topics: The Observer XT, animal behavior research, horses, heart rate monitoring

Equitation sciences: behavioral research, physiology and biomechanics

Posted by G. Smit on Nov 15, 2011

Not long ago, we wrote a blog post on human-cat interaction. Besides the study of the relation between humans and popular pets such as cats and dogs, human-horse interaction is an increasingly popular subject of science. 

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Topics: The Observer XT, animal behavior research, animal-human interaction, video observation, animal welfare, horses

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