Most equestrian enthusiasts will know that horses have different characters, just like people. If you know a horse well, you often know what type it is. Often useful for you to know, because you can estimate how it responds to new or exciting situations. Scientists were also interested in horses’ reactions to new situations or objects. This tells you something about the horse’s character. Therefore, various behavioral tests have been developed, including the novel object test.
The novel object test was originally used in mice and rats to evaluate the animal’s behaviour. Later the test was also applied to horses. In the novel object test, the animals are introduced to a new, unknown object. The scientists then look at the animals’ reactions to this object. So you actually measure the horse’s anxiety or stress response. Some horses will be curious and will examine the object by, for example, pawing at it and sniffing it. Others may react more anxiously, for example, they run away from the object and look at it from a distance. The novel object test can be performed in an open space (box or paddock), but also in a stable. For example, the object is brought into the room by a person or is lowered down into the room from the ceiling. Often it is a visual stimulus, but you could also test for sound, movement or a combination of factors.
To record the behaviour as objectively as possible, an ethogram is often used. This is a list of all behaviours that an animal can display. The behaviours are described objectively without giving a (personal) meaning to the behaviour. For example, ‘eating’ would be described as ‘a chewing motion with food in the mouth’. In this way everyone knows what the behaviour of the animal looks like and you avoid humanizing the behaviour (anthropomorphism). You can use an ethogram to record how often a horse shows certain behaviour or how long it shows it.
What exactly does such a test tell you? As we mentioned above, it tells you something about the character of your horse. How does it react to new situations? How you continue to use the information you gain from the test actually depends on the research you do. Several behavioral studies have been conducted with horses using the novel object test. In the study by Bulens et al. they investigated the use of different objects in a novel object test while the horses were in the stable. They measured the responses to four different objects in 54 horses (umbrella, cones in two different colours and a ball). The horses appeared to give the most reactions with the umbrella. In a study by Visser et al. they used the test to say something about the temperament of young horses. This resulted in two components: the tendency to flee and the sensitivity to the environment. So to what extent does the horse tend to flee and to what extent is the horse’s performance affected by the changes in the environment. In another study by Visser et al. they just looked at the heart rate and changes in the heart rate in young horses during a novel object test. They also looked at the difference in trained young horses and ‘green’ young horses. They concluded that the heart rate measurements and their variability in this test can say something about the horse’s temperament. The higher the heart rate, the more the animal responds to the object. Measuring heart rate to say something about the horse’s character is also used in testing potential police horses.
You could also do the novel object test with your own horse. It is best to set it loose in an enclosed space, after which you place the object in the center of the space. Then take a good look at your horse. Does it approach the object or run away from it? It may take a while for him to investigate and he first looks at it from a distance. How does he react when he touches the object, does he startle or start playing with it? Perhaps a little less scientific, but your horse’s reactions tell you something about its character. It can help you estimate how it responds to a hack out or a competition, for example. You can then take this into account in your training.
Below you can see a video of the horse, Hagar, and how he reacts to a large plastic ball.
Does your horse react very startled and anxious to new objects? Then you can also train it to react differently through obstacle training. Do you want to know more about this? We offer a fun one-day training where you can participate with or without your own horse!
– Bulens et al. (link: http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(14)00128-2/abstract)
– Visser et al. (link: http://www.appliedanimalbehaviour.com/article/S0168-1591(01)00177-0/abstract)
– Visser et al (link: file:///C:/Users/lotte/Downloads/Heartrate_HRV.pdf)