How do horses react to music? [H&H VIP]

  • Many yards are pumping with radio breakfast shows. The grooms are swinging their pitchforks with zeal, the place is buzzing and there’s a good vibe. But are the horses happy? Could they be stressed by the same sounds that motivate those mucking out?

    There has been plenty of research on the effect of music on animals, albeit limited in scale. Cows have been found to produce more milk while classical music is played compared to pop. Back in the 1970s, scientific studies showed that loud music of any sort has a negative effect on horses.

    ‘Nature is pretty quiet’

    Susan McBane, an equestrian author and experienced practitioner in equitation science, has analysed the findings.

    “Nature is pretty quiet if you think about it,” she says. “Horses [have been found to] hate loud music, particularly rock, rap or punk, for example, but are soothed by soft, classical music — but only for up to 30min.”

    After this time, the test horses showed tension in the form of tightened skin, worried faces and even stereotypies.

    Susan adds: “When they do like music, they prefer gentle instrumental music without the human voice, or military music.”

    A more recent study on “auditory stimulation equine behaviour”, undertaken at Hartpury College in 2012, found that the genre and volume of music had different effects.

    Student Clare Carter and her supervisor Linda Greening analysed the behaviour of eight thoroughbred geldings that had been stabled for three hours. They played classical, country, rock and jazz for 30min each, and also observed the horses for 30min in silence.

    With classical, country and silence, horses were more restful and ate more quietly. With jazz and rock, the researchers recorded stamping, head tossing, snorting and whinnying. Although the horses still ate, it was in short bursts.

    “Music that encouraged relaxed behaviour appeared to act as a barrier to external noise distractions, while rock and jazz may have encouraged stress because they added to noise distraction,” said Linda.

    Jazz — in a minor key and fast tempo — provoked the most stress, while country — major key and slow tempo — proved the most positive.

    The researchers recommended 21 decibels (dB) as the maximum volume. 60dB is normal conversation level.

    Strict rules

    Conversely, there are many extremely successful riders who believe music has benefits, such as “light entertainment” for those on box rest, desensitisation to the tannoy and show environment, or as a distraction from local hunting or fireworks. Many say that grooms who are motivated by the relaxed atmosphere that music can provide pass on their good mood to their horses.

    Katie Jerram says: “A radio on the yard is a good thing because it keeps horses occupied” — but she has strict rules.

    We don’t put it on until around 10am when the horses have been fed and have digested, and we start mucking out.”

    “It’s always peaceful — my horses like Radio Two. And it does help them get used to tannoys because they are familiar with that sort of noise.”

    Darren Hegarty, who has competed at three-star eventing, says “it keeps horses relaxed”. His radio is on most of the day.

    “All our horses are very chilled and there’s a calm atmosphere,” he says.

    “No heavy metal though!”

    But Clare Turner, a British Eventing accredited coach, says that while she can see there are advantages, she has a “no radio” yard.

    “It can get too busy and the horses need a break,” she says. “Grooms have their phones to play music on quietly.”

    Many racing yards do not permit radios. The late trainer Gordon W Richards required absolute quiet on the yard (but not in the tackroom). He even forbade music in the horsebox cab, as he believed horses had enough to concentrate on travelling and anticipating racing.

    Ref: H&H 11 December, 2014