Use of auditory enrichment to improve equine wellbeing and performance
by Dr V. Tamara Montrose, Animal Welfare Research & Knowledge Exchange Arena, University Centre Hartpury,
Enhancing wellbeing and performance are two key aims when working with horses. Horses are used in an array of disciplines and housed in a variety of management conditions with differing exercise regimes. Regardless of the husbandry or use of the horse, enhancing their welfare is an important consideration.
One method by which this can be done is via the use of sensory enrichment. Sensory enrichment is a form of environmental enrichment where auditory, olfactory or visual stimuli are provided to the animal’s environment in an attempt to enhance their welfare. Auditory enrichment is increasingly being used in a range of domestic and exotic species. This can include the use of various stimuli such as music, audiobooks or natural habitat sounds. In particular, music has been suggested to be beneficial in many species. Use of classical music has reduced stereotypic behaviour in elephants and gorillas, reduced aggression and increased social behaviour in chimpanzees and increased resting and reduced barking in shelter dogs.
In this article I will discuss a number of studies that illustrate the use of auditory enrichment in horses to enhance their wellbeing and performance. Auditory enrichment in these studies has occurred via music being played in the horses’ stables. Use of music as auditory enrichment is beneficial to consider in horse rehabilitation and management as it tends to be straightforward, costeffective and easily applied.
Genre of music and horse wellbeing:
A number of studies have looked at the effects of different genres of music on horses. One of the first studies in this field was carried out by Katherine Houpt and colleagues. In 2000 they looked at the effects of four types of music (rock, country, classical and jazz) on the behaviour of nine ponies. The ponies were exposed to each type of music for two sessions, each of which were three hours in length. While the researchers did not find any significant effects of the music, there was a trend towards increased eating seen when the horses were exposed to country music. This led the authors to suggest that country music may have a calming influence in horses.
More recently in 2012, Clare Carter and Linda Greening exposed eight thoroughbred geldings to four musical genres (classical, country, jazz and rock). The horses experienced the music for one hour a day with the different music genres being played on consecutive days. They found that use of classical and country music seemed to encourage more resting behaviour in the horses, potentially suggesting a relaxing effect of these music types. On the other hand, use of rock and jazz music seemed to be more problematic for use in equine management due to the horses showing more alert behaviour. Considered in conjunction, while further work with a larger sample size and longer exposure to the music conditions would be beneficial, this preliminary work is suggestive that use of country music particularly may be beneficial in stabled horses.
Effects of music on horse wellbeing and performance:
Since these earlier studies occurred looking at music genre and horse behaviour, recent work has built on this research by examining the effects of specific genres of music upon measures of wellbeing and performance in horses.
In 2014, Lea Lansade and others examined the effects of classical music and country music upon horse personality, learning abilities and wellbeing. They did this via exposing ten horses to a programme of environment enrichment where they experienced a range of treatments such as music, odours and various objects (such as balloons and tyres).
The horses were alternately exposed to classical or country music for five days a week for one hour each day. The horses were also fed three times a day with flavoured pellets, hay, or fruits (randomly flavoured with different feed additives such as garlic, banana, cherry, or oregano). They found that horses exposed to enrichment seemed to have better well-being than non-enriched horses such that the enriched horses vocalised less and showed less alert behaviour. They also showed less abnormal behaviours and eating problems. The enriched horses also showed more resting behaviour. In addition enrichment appeared to affect the personality of horses such that the enriched horses were less frightened by novel objects or locations suggesting that the enriched horses were more curious and had more positive views of their environment. Enriched horses also showed better performance in a learning task. While drawing conclusions about the effects of music are confounded in this study due to the multiple forms of enrichment experienced by the horses, this study is suggestive that use of music may have multiple beneficial effects in horses.
Carter, C., & Greening, L. (2012). Auditory stimulation of the stabled equine; the effect of different music genres on behaviour. In: Proceedings of the 8th International Equitation Science Conference. Edinburgh: Royal (Dick) Veterinary School; 2012. p. 167.
Houpt, K., Marrow, M., & Seeliger, M. (2000). A preliminary study of the effect of music on equine behavior. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 20(11), 691-737.
Kędzierski, W., Janczarek, I., Stachurska, A., & Wilk, I. (2017). Comparison of Effects of Different Relaxing Massage Frequencies and Different Music Hours on Reducing Stress Level in Race Horses. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 53, 100-107.
Lansade, L., Valenchon, M., Foury, A., Neveux, C., Cole, S. W., Layé, S., ... & Moisan, M. P. (2014). Behavioral and transcriptomic fingerprints of an enriched environment in horses (Equus caballus). PloS one, 9(12), e114384.
Stachurska, A., Janczarek, I., Wilk, I., & Kędzierski, W. (2015). Does music influence emotional state in race horses?. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 35(8), 650-656.
In addition, in 2014 Anna Stachurska and colleagues conducted a study that found that music not only improved the emotional state of forty race horses but also that these horses won more prize money when competing. The horses in this study experienced new age music for five hours a day for a year. While the study findings did suggest that the horses may habituate to the music, the authors suggest that using music for two or three months before important races or at the beginning of the racing season may be beneficial both to improve horse welfare and performance.
Recently in 2017, as part of a wider study looking at effects of massage and music, Witold Kedzierski and colleagues looked at the effects of different lengths of exposure to music upon race horses. Two different groups of twelve horses were exposed to new age music for either one hour or three hours a day. The authors found that experiencing music for three hours a day had more beneficial effects on the horses’ emotional state than just one hour exposure. Exposure to three hours of music a day also had more beneficial effects on the horses’ race performance than one hour of music.
Considering these studies together, they suggest some beneficial effects of new age, country and classical music upon both horse wellbeing and also learning and sporting performance.
Practical applications of this research:
Music is a straightforward form of enrichment that can be easily applied in general horse management. The research suggests that music can be utilised to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing and performance in horses. The following recommendations can be made when using music in the rehabilitation environment:
- Classical music, country music and new age music may increase wellbeing in horses.
- New age music may help enhance horse sporting performance.
- Exposure of horses to multiple hours of music per day seems beneficial.
- Varying the music genre used may be effective to avoid habituation to the music by the horses.
In conclusion, the research to date looking at auditory enrichment in horses suggests that music has the potential to positively affect horses. Various studies have suggested that use of classical music, country music and new age music is beneficial for stabled horses to enhance wellbeing, learning and performance. Use of music in the management of stabled horses is an important form of enrichment to consider which has the potential to improve equine welfare.
Dr V. Tamara Montrose
Animal Welfare Research and
Knowledge Exchange Arena,
University Centre Hartpury, Hartpury,
Gloucestershire, GL19 3BE