Police horses ridden into volatile situations may be wearing Perspex face shields, thick body rugs and boots for physical protection, but how stressed do they become?

Dutch warmbloods working with the Eindhoven Police Department in the Netherlands for more than 3 years were studied to assess their welfare.

The results were published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

The 9 horses were fitted with heart rate monitors and blood samples were taken for indicators of stress. Their behaviour was also scored by their riders, each of whom had been riding the same horse for more than 6 months.

Several situations were examined — night-time patrols in pairs in central Amsterdam, high-speed transportation to a place where they were needed and riot control training in teams of 6. This included exposure to fire, tear gas and an unruly crowd of more than 100 people.

Hooligans throwing bricks was surprisingly not the most stressful experience. Nor was the presence of flashing lights, drunken partygoers or traffic.

What fazed the horses most was exposure to fire and being separated from the rest of the team. It was also found that soothing communication from the rider proved a vital part of keeping them calm.

There was more variation in stress between individual horses than between different experiences, suggesting some horses are more suited to police work than others.

The scientists concluded that police horses are less stressed than an elite sport horse being pushed to win in competition.

This veterinary article was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (25 July 2013)