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News Article

Snorts appear to be indicators of positive emotions in horses

Researchers found snort production was significantly associated with situations known to be positive for horses

Evidence that horses reliably produce more snorts in favourable situations could improve animal welfare practices, according to a study published in PLOS ONE by Mathilde Stomp of the Université de Rennes, France, and colleagues.

Assessing positive emotions is important for improving animal welfare, but it has been challenging to identify reliable indicators. Physiological markers often give contradictory results, and many behavioural signals are ambiguous. In particular, few studies have examined acoustic indicators of positive emotions.

Anecdotal reports have indicated that horses frequently produce snorts in positive situations. Following up on this evidence, Stomp and colleagues evaluated snort production by 48 horses that lived either in restricted conditions (i.e., riding school horses that spent much of their time in individual stalls) or naturalistic conditions (i.e., stable groups of horses always in pasture).

Snort production was significantly associated with positive situations and with a positive internal state, as indicated by ears positioned forward or sideways. For example, riding school horses produced twice as many snorts in pasture than when they were in stalls. In addition, horses living in naturalistic conditions emitted significantly more snorts than riding school horses in comparable contexts. Taken together, the findings suggest that snorts are reliable indicators of positive emotions in horses.

Dr Stomp notes: "The snort, a non-vocal signal produced by the air expiration through the nostrils, is associated with more positive contexts (in pasture, while feeding) and states (with ears on forward position) in horses. Moreover, it is less frequent in horses showing an altered welfare. These results provide a potential important tool as snorts appear as a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions which could help identify situations appreciated by horses."

The researchers note that their study does not totally allow to rule out the sanitary function of snort, since dust differences present in stall and pasture contexts have not been examined in details, but the results show that this is unlikely to explain differences between individual horses.

They say: “Further researches involving dusts’ rate measures would be helpful to entirely determine the relative importance of this factor in snorts expression. It would also be important that a proper repertoire of the non-vocal sounds is promoted and becomes consensual between non-acoustic researchers on horses’ emotions to avoid confusions between studies and interpretations. Finally, observations during working circumstances would be needed where breathing constraints due to exercise and emotions are mingling. In any case, these results lead us to believe that acoustic signals constitute a potential marker of positive emotions, suggesting a new breakthrough in research evaluation of positive emotional states in horses.”

Read article: An unexpected acoustic indicator of positive emotions in horses by Mathilde Stomp, Maël Leroux, Marjorie Cellier, Séverine Henry, Alban Lemasson and Martine Hausberger, published in PLOS ONE (2018) 13(7): e0197898, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0197898

Article details

  • Date
  • 18 July 2018
  • Source
  • PLOS
  • Subject(s)
  • Horses and other Equines