Do Snorts Suggest Horses are Happy?

New evidence suggesting that horses produce more snorts in favorable situations could improve animal welfare practices, researchers say.
Snorts suggest horses are happy

New evidence suggesting that horses reliably produce more snorts in favorable situations could help improve animal welfare practices, according to a recently published study by Mathilde Stomp, PhD, and colleagues from the Université de Rennes, in France.

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 behavioral signals can be ambiguous. In particular, few studies have examined acoustic indicators of positive emotions.

Anecdotal reports have indicated that horses frequently produce snorts in positive situations. So Stomp and colleagues evaluated how frequently 48 horses—which 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)—snorted.

The researchers found that 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. Further, they found that horses living in natural 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, the team said.

“The snort, a nonvocal 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,” Stomp said. “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 study, “An unexpected acoustic indicator of positive emotions in horses,” was published in PLOS ONE.

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