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ISES Down Under, Day 3 – Sophie’s blog

Last night at the Cork and Fork festival was again another really fun night socialising with people passionate about equitation science. Every time I attend one of these conferences I am always filled with this really satisfying feeling of being a part of a group who are all on the same page. No need to convince anyone or explain anything – we’re all here for the same reason.


This morning first up, Natalie Waran presented her plenary called ‘Through their eyes – The challenge of assessing equine emotions’.

The objective of Equitation Scientists is always to try to measure equine health (behaviourally, psychically and mentally) but it’s not always easy. In humans, we measure quality of life through self-reports, surveys and observations – but obviously this wouldn’t work when measuring the quality of life for horses. Some of the things we use to measure equine emotions –


  • Heartrate / Heartrate Variability – not always reliable due to the influence activity/exercise has on the readings. Also, it’s hard to measure what an increase in HRV means – is the horse stressed? Or maybe excited?
  • Cortisol levels – somewhat effective, but doesn’t always relate to behaviour, it doesn’t always match what we see.
  • Infrared imagery – can be affective but difficult to capture affectively, and the technology isn’t always reliable.


  • Avoidance behaviour can tell us how a horse is feeling
  • Facial expressions – the grimace scale.
  • Indicators of fear – blink rate, yawning, anticipatory behaviour, vocalisation, but it’s hard to make connection to actual emotions.
  • Preference testing, motivational measurement, cognitive bias.

But there are confounding factors that affect behaviour. Horses can hide behaviours, the restriction we keep horses under can affect behaviour, and also past experiences.

There is also cognitive bias – past experiences can it make humans and also animals pessimistic or optimistic, so this can affect a positive or negative outcome in testing. .

It’s really hard to define happiness, and interpreting behaviour as an indication of mental state is problematic, but we can look at and learn from research in other disciplines. Also we can characterise horse emotional expressions and apply this in practice to assess the quality of life.

“Horses have always had welfare – our challenge is to understand what good welfare is, from the horse’s point of view, and how we can provide for it”



Paul McGreevy then presented the partial findings to come from a collaboration of 14 panellists assessing horse welfare using the 5 domains module to assess the impact on horse welfare of husbandry and equitation procedures. The 5 domains are:

  • Nutrition
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Behaviour
  • voluntary pressure

Which can then give us an idea of..

  • mental state

The panellists looked at 14 different factors that can affect welfare such as weaning, housing, veterinary, foundation training, breeding etc, then give each factor a score out of 10 on their impact on welfare in relation to the above 4 domains.

The outcome is promising and although the results are not published yet, it’s clear the 5 Domains Model could be used successfully to assess welfare, and we could then create a scoring system for horse carers to assess welfare in future, which would be useful for horse carers bodies like the RSPCA etc.


Susan Kuhnke presented her study on ‘the effect of different bits, bridles and rein handling on rein tension and muscle trigger reaction point’.

She used 88 horses and 61 riders, and tested rein tension between different bridles and bits in English and Western disciplines.  The bridles & bits used were:

  • English – cavesson noseband, flash noseband, drop noseband and the figure 8 noseband, used with Snaffles – single & double
  • Western – French cavesson or no noseband used with Snaffle bits, fixed curb, baby bit, snaffle with shanks and correction bits.

The results showed the highest rein tension came from the English bridle with the snaffle bit followed by western snaffle bit.  It was noted though, that westerns had shank bits which is difficult to measure actual pressure in the mouth, due to the action of the curb.

The rein tension was lowest in the English bridles for French cavessons, and highest with the flash. It was also noticed that the nosebands that prohibit jaw opening resulted in higher rein tension.


Anina Vogt then presented her study on the ‘horses’ voluntary acceptance of rein tension with various bitless bridles compared to single jointed snaffle’.

There are many different bitless bridles with various pressure points in various areas of sensitivity, so Anina wanted to measure which bridle type causes more pressure. Horses were fitted with various bitless bridles and a bitted snaffle bridle with the reins attached to a roller. They were then loured forward and downward with food, and the rein tension they will voluntarily take to get to the food was measured. The results showed the Fred Rai Rope bitless was ‘softest’ as the horses took the highest voluntary pressure with this.

The Side Pull bitless was the ‘harshest’ as the horses took the lowest voluntary pressure.

The Snaffle compared fairly evenly to most of the other bitless bridles.

Interesting, the Coldblooded horses voluntarily accepted the highest pressures which could suggest they have thicker skin or a higher pressure tollerance… or that they just have a higher feed motivation! In general pressure tolerances varied amongst horses.

The results indicated that the area of contact is more relevant than body part that feels the pressure (Nose v Jaw).

Anina noted that there is potential danger with the fitting of bitless bridles, as the nasal bone is quite thin and could easily break with high pressures.

The key to good welfare is the correct use of Negative reinforcement.



Fiona Crago – an opportunistic pilot study of radiographs of equine nasal bones at the usual site of nosebands. We already know that tight nosebands cause physiological stress, they prevent natural oral behaviours, cause pain and reduced blood flow. Fiona took 60 radiographs to be examined by specialist radiologist (who was blinded to factors such as breed, age etc). Our of the 60 radiographs, 6 were deemed as having nasal plane changes. Our of the 6, 3 were warmbloods, 2 were thoroughbreds, 1 stockhorse.

The findings suggest what was suspected, than warmbloods would show more boney changes, and they are the horses predominantly use in dressage which is known as a sport that has tight nosebands. Further research needs to be done to definitely establish what’s normal, and therefore what’s not.


After morning tea, Lauren Hemsworth from the Animal Welfare Science Centre presented a plenary on ‘Behaviour change in horse owners to safeguard horse welfare’.

Lauren started off by explaining that they actually do at the Animal Welfare Science Centre. Horse welfare is problematic which is largely due to mismanagement through ignorance / lack of knowledge. They use the Theory of Planned Behaviour to manage and change human behaviour when it comes to animal mistreatment. Basically, the humans attitude towards a behaviour, what they believe to be the norms & their perceived control over the behaviour affects their intentions, which then outcomes in their behaviour. The AWSC looks at identifying people’s beliefs which predicts their behaviour. Being able to predict their behaviour means that we can change behaviour by re-training beliefs.

Implementing education and training programs targeting the improvement in horse owner knowledge, will affect change and improve management practices to safeguard horse welfare.


Debbie Busby presented her presentation on ‘human behaviour change for animals: a new approach to sustainable change for horses’.

Human behaviour is the root cause for most animal welfare concerns, and in order to improve horse welfare we need to look at how to change human behaviour.

Debbie presented the four pillars for change –

  • Process – motivation, capability, opportunity
  • Psychology – confrontation often produces failure to change, an empathetic approach is more successful.
  • Environment – home life, relationships, employment etc, culture.
  • Ownership – involve people in the process of change.

Change is a process, it’s not always about just importing knowledge. We need to involve people and address the four pillars to truly create change.


Lauren Brizgys presented her study looking into whether ‘views regarding horse show behaviours are influenced by owners perceived locus of control’.

The ‘locus of control’ is how a person views their life and therefor makes decisions, so Lauren wanted to explore whether people’s perceptions of welfare is sport were influenced by this. She distributed a survey and collected 956 responses to analyse their locus of control.  The conclusions from the survey showed a relationship with a horses behaviour and the humans locus of control.


Next up, Kirilly Thompson presented her research on how Australian horse owners determine if their horses have their social and behavioural needs met. She conducted a survey. 56% of people surveyed believed their horses social and behavioural needs are met completely, which is surprisingly high. They were then asked ‘how they know’, and the data showed that people valued company and time spent in paddock as an indicator of what the horse needs which is great, but people also believed their horse was ‘happy’ because:

  • They went to competitions
  • They trained a certain way
  • They spend a lot of time with the horse

…So still a way to go! Anthropomorphising is still really common, but is it necessarily bad? Horse welfare could be improved is we look at the similarities and differences between horses and humans, and help humans understand them.


Elke Hartman then presented her preliminary findings when looking at whether leadership related to social order in groups of horses can it be transferred to human-horse interactions. Many humans still believe you need to take a leadership position to achieve compliance when training horses, however research shows that groups of horses change leadership frequently to maximise the benefits of the group.

Her study involved 4 groups of 5 horses. Horses were placed in pens and a novel object and a plastic surface to step over was placed out of pen, then horses released to explore novel object. The horses were then assessed on their attempt to explore the object and cross the surface. The results showed that the higher-ranking horses did not always initiate leadership, which confirms many other studies suggesting this. For humans, we’re better to have knowledge of a horse’s natural behaviours and learning capacities to explain learning outcomes, rather than label it as leadership v submission.


Cristine Hall presented a part of her doctorate study – teaching ES as a collaborative, communicative and ever-changing partnership of coach, student and horse.

She conducted lesson observation and interviews, and the findings of her research suggested that equestrian coaches need to have specialist skills, different from a coach from a different sport as there are so many factors involved. There is opportunity here for more academic training.


Sheila Ramsey talked about discovering Hoof Wall Separation Disease, which is an autosomal recessive hoof disease that affects Connemara ponies. It was largely unheard of. Sheila started a blog and social media campaign to raise money to research this disease, which has now lead to an increased understanding about HWSD, which is now a confirmed disease.


Jenny Carroll spoke to us just after lunch about The Australian Horse Industry, and the opportunities for Equitation Science. There have been a lot of changes recently impacting the horse industry – more regulations in place for horse and rider safety and horse welfare, however there are still areas that need to be addressed. For equitation science to engage and promote change within the industry, we need to do more research, promote results, and acknowledge what is best practice by rewarding the right things.


The next hour was spent in a workshop with Nick de Brauwere: ‘Do you understand me or do I need to shout louder? Bringing the human behaviour change in the equine industry’. We were encouraged within our tables to discuss how we can communicate, collaborate and cause change. As an exercise, Nick asked us to look at promoting the two-finger noseband rule. Each table had to discuss some of the reasons why people fasten their horse’s nosebands tight, and then identifying some of the key reasons, look at a way to implement the rule. There was some really robust discussion, trying to look into the minds of riders and develop a way to reach out. Some of the reasons raised why people ride with tight nosebands:

  • It’s what everyone does
  • It keeps my horse’s mouth shut
  • It stabilises the bit
  • It enables me to have control and therefore safety

Then, we had to consider these thoughts, and come up with a way to implement change:

  • Use high-profile riders to promote the two-finger rule
  • Create competitions where riders are rewarded for correctly fitted nosebands
  • Publicly advertise the harms of tight nosebands
  • Educate riders on why their horse opens their mouth, and how to train it not to.

This kind of discussion is really important for ISES to have, as research is great but we need to reach the industries.


We finished up the day with a panel discussion on how we can communicate, collaborate and change with Natalie Waran, Nick de Brauwere, Peta Hitchins and Lauren Hemsworth. Again, the discussion was about creating change in industries to improve horse welfare, and how to spread the science in layman’s terms to reach practitioners in the field.


That brings the end of the ISES Down Under 2017 conference.  As always, I loved it! The presentations were interesting and relevant, the panel discussions and workshops were thought provoking and engaging, and the practical presentations were unique. Super efforts from Hayley Randle, Natalie Waran, Jaymie Loy, Cristina Wilkins, Cath Henshall and the rest of the ISES organising committee. It’s a huge event to put on yearly, and I think I’m correct in thinking these people volunteer their time, so it’s really a great effort, and I’m sure I speak for all attendees when I say we appreciate it!


Next year, ISES is in Rome!! Hope I manage to get there, and hope to see all of the ISES faithfuls there again! It’s always such a fun few days, as well as being incredibly educational and inspiring.