July 11 (UPI) -- Horses snort more when they're comfortable and happy. The communication could help caretakers achieve more positive animal welfare outcomes.
Proper care for animals involves minimizing stress. But how do caretakers know when animals are happy or bothered? Interpreting the emotions of horses can be especially difficult. Many behavioral signals displayed by horses are ambiguous, and studies of physiological signals have yielded contradictory results.
Many horse owners and caretakers have noted an association between snorting and positive environments, but the connection hadn't been scientifically tested until now.
Researchers in France monitored snorting frequency among 48 horses. Half were riding horses, kept in confined environs and separated in solitary stalls. The other half were kept in more natural conditions, in pastured groups.
Riding horses snorted more often when allowed to pasture than when confined to their stalls. Horses living in pastured groups snorted more than riding horses in all scenarios. Scientists also found snorts were correlated with the positioning of ears forward or sideways, another indicator of a positive internal state.
Researchers published the results of their study in the journal PLOS One.
"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," lead researcher Mathilde Stomp, from Rennes University, said in a news release. "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."