In the wild, horses must be alert to predators that may attack them. This means that even domesticated horses are forced to perceive danger and can get scared easily.
Unfortunately, the so-called “startle” or “panic” response is reflexive, and horses often can’t distinguish what danger a Florida panther might pose versus a plastic bag perched on a riding ring. Some horses react to these perceived threats by rearing up, slipping, or bucking, which can create dangerous situations for owners and riders.
University of Florida researchers are working to identify the genes that influence horses’ tendency to react to these “scary” plastic bags. Identifying these genetic traits will be a first step towards someday selecting or breeding horses for our preferred temperaments. The results of this research may be a decade away.
Samantha Brooks, assistant professor of equine genetics at UF/IFAS, and her team conducted an experiment on several groups of young horses that are part of the UF/IFAS breeding program that helps understand startle responses.
Horses wear wireless heart rate monitors and are loose in a round pen. At set intervals, the canopy is quickly opened within the animals’ line of sight. The team analyzed the animals’ behavior and the change in heart rate throughout and after the initial reaction.
“We can’t read their minds,” Brooks said. “Their heart rate tells us what’s going on inside that we can’t see from reading their body language alone. It was exciting to see the stories their heart rate tells us.”
Two clear groups of horses emerged from the data. The first group was surprised by the opening of the canopy, experienced a higher heart rate, and maintained a reactive or hyper-alert state including more time spent looking and turning away from the canopy. The second group was just as startled as the first group at the opening of the parachute, but the result was different. The horses experienced a sharp spike in heart rate but calmed down quickly and went on with their day. These animals perceived the stimulus and found it startling, but they did not go through the behavioral patterns of avoidance, fear, etc. like the first group.
“Horses have adapted over thousands of years to live with people,” she said. “Some of these changes include a decrease in startle response and are really useful for better understanding the horses we work with today.”
Now that two groups have emerged, the team will take this information and develop a study to discern the genetic components that shape how horses respond to fear. Blood and hair samples were taken from each horse in the study for future analysis.
Knowing how genetics influence behavior can help horses and owners find what works for them. A scary horse might not be the best choice for a 10-year-old girl. But a more fearless, high-flying horse might be best suited for a high-energy job like show jumping.
“Understanding the genetic makeup of each horse will help you understand the type of animal you need,” Brooks said. “If we learn early on what this animal’s natural tendencies are most likely to be, we can make informed decisions about training and future careers to give the horse the best chance of growing into its potential, rather than becoming a problem or danger.”
Additionally, understanding a horse’s reaction to uncomfortable situations can make the difference in how they are handled for medical procedures, transported and more.
“It’s important to know about these traits because they can affect how horses are groomed in general,” said Barclay Powell, PhD. A student working on a project. “This would be very important for the veterinary field as well. It’s not only beneficial for people who handle animals, but also for the welfare of horses.”
“It doesn’t matter if a horse is a racehorse, therapy animal, or cart-wheeler, a sudden, unplanned response is generally a problem,” Brooks said. “We’re just beginning to sort this out. It might take us 10 years or more to get a really clear understanding, but it’s worth the effort.”
Funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, this project was a collaboration between scientists and students studying equine genetics, behavior, and welfare sciences.
“This research provided graduate and undergraduate students with an opportunity to see research in action and learn more about equine behavior,” said Carissa Wickens, UF/IFAS associate professor and research partner. “The participating students learned a lot about conducting field-level behavioral testing and working with young horses. They enjoyed being part of the process, which is another exciting component of this project.”