New ethogram to improve understanding of equine discomfort behaviour *H&H Plus*

  • Researchers have created an ethogram based on 35 years of research and observations. H&H speaks to the researchers and an equine behavioural expert to find out more

    A NEW ethogram based on decades of observations of thousands of horses has been developed in the hope of creating a more “universal” understanding of discomfort behaviours.

    The Equine Discomfort Ethogram by Catherine Torcivia and Sue McDonnell of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine was published in Animals last month and includes 73 behaviours shown by horses, with illustrations and video examples.

    The ethogram was created based on 35 years of research undertaken at the university’s equine hospital with 24-hour video recordings of stabled horses, both well and with health issues, when their caretaker was and was not present.

    Dr McDonnell told H&H the research is beneficial in understanding why a horse is displaying a behaviour.

    “One of the underlying themes of helping vets, owners and trainers is to understand what horses do when they’re uncomfortable. In almost all cases it’s not to do with misbehaviour, they’re just showing their physical discomfort,” she said.

    “Over the years, clinicians have asked, ‘How do we educate people on these behaviours?’, so we felt it was time to put in writing how we evaluate these cases with the help of diagrams. We wanted clear universal communication so whether you‘re in Japan or Pennsylvania, someone can say, ‘Yes, this is what I’m looking at.’ That’s why the illustrations are so important.”

    Dr Torcivia added that the ethogram is not meant to be diagnostic, but can help owners describe their horses’ behaviour to their vets.

    “It’s meant to help people recognise that these things are happening and if they see these repeatedly over time then it is an indication for them to contact their vet and have more diagnostics performed,” she said.

    “We want people to understand not to panic if they see one incidence of a behaviour. When we’re evaluating horses for prolonged discomfort, it’s based on repetitive observations of the same behaviours. Some behaviours listed in the ethogram are normal in certain contexts and it’s not until you start seeing them repetitively or out of context that you need to be concerned.”

    Horse Trust equine director of behaviour Gemma Pearson, who previously spent three weeks with Dr McDonell undertaking observation and videoing of semi-feral ponies, told H&H there has been a “massive shift“ towards people understanding that problem behaviours often relate to pain or incorrect training responses, rather than being “naughty”.

    “Video footage taken overnight can be a really valuable tool where we think there may be something wrong but we can’t pinpoint what’s going on. It makes sense for a horse as a prey animal; they will hide indicators of pain when people are around, so getting video footage is really useful,” she said.

    The full study is available online.

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