Indicators of stress during round pen training
12 Jun 2015
Natural horsemanship methods as taught by Pat Parelli and Monty Roberts involve interpreting the horse’s body language during training to decipher whether the horse is relaxed and accepting of the trainer yet.
A study by researchers in Poland set out to see if certain behaviours presented in round pen training, were indicators of stress. They attempted to measure this by seeing if these behaviours correlated with high heart rate. The behaviours were: vocalization, defecation, escape attempts (running away from the trainer), high head position and oral behaviour (teeth grinding).
Involved in the study were 20 Arabian stallions aged 33-36 months and 20 Thoroughbred stallions aged 16-19 months. The behaviours were observed concurrently by three observers familiar with the use of natural horsemanship methods in training young horses and horses were fitted with a heart rate monitor. The observations occurred over three one-hour periods on consecutive days, during which a trainer was teaching the previously unhandled horses to accept a saddle and bridle using natural horsemanship methods in a round pen.
The researchers found high heart rate correlated with defecation, vocalization, high head position and escape attempt in Thoroughbred horses only. Teeth grinding did not correlate with high heart rate. None of the five studied behaviours correlated with high heart rate in the Arabian stallions. The researchers do not know why this is. This indicates that vocalization, defecation, high head position and escape attempt are indicators of stress in Thoroughbreds undergoing round pen training but not Arabians. If these behaviors lessen throughout the training session than this could be interpreted as the horse becoming more relaxed and accepting under the presence and direction of the trainer.
It should be noted that previous studies have found that defecation can also be a sign of relaxation. The additional measurement of heart rate helps confirm if the horse is relaxed or not.
More studies should be done in this area as these results are quite confusing. It would also be good to see a study done in which the effects of age are investigated, as in this study the Arabian stallions were older than the Thoroughbred stallions.
Wilk, I., & Janczarek, I. (2015). Relationship between behavior and cardiac response to round pen training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 10(3), 231-236.