That sound. The warm rumble we are all so familiar with - our horses' snort. Many horse owners and caretakers have noted an association between snorting and positive environments, but the connection hadn't been scientifically tested until now.
In a study, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers in France determined that the snorting exhale that horses often make may be a sign of a positive emotion. The scientists at the University of Rennes, noticed that horses tend to snort when they’re moved into better living conditions, like large pastures with a lot of food.
"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, 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."
The study recorded 560 snorts among 48 privately owned and riding school horses. All the horses snorted — as little as once or as often as 13 times an hour. The horses mainly snorted during calm and relaxing activities, and those that spent more time out of doors snorted the most. The scientists noticed that horses tend to snort when they’re moved into better living conditions, like large pastures with a lot of food.
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.
When a horse was snorting, the researchers also recorded the animal’s ear position; forward-pointing ears are a known signal of a positive internal state, Ms. Stomp said. Researchers also developed a composite score of each animal’s stress level when snorting, with measurements including how much time a horse spent facing the wall in its stall, as well as its level of interaction with or aggressive behavior toward the researcher.
Ms. Stomp said her work was motivated by the desire to help people better understand and meet the needs of their animals.
“We think that with this acoustic indicator, maybe they will be able to test when their horses are in good conditions or not,” she said.