Further research being carried out across the University
Ground breaking research publication links horse behaviour to brain function
PhD student Kirsty Roberts at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU) in Cirencester publishes the first research study to date which links brain function to temperament and behavioural profile in horses, in prestigious research journal Physiology and Behaviour.
Funded by the RAU, Kirsty’s research was performed in collaboration with neuroscientists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Portsmouth. This highlights the value of collaboration with experts from non-equestrian disciplines, providing data with broader application to human disorders, such as Parkinson's disease and schizophrenia.
Unlike farm species such as cattle and sheep, which are reared for milk and meat, the primary trait of interest in horses is their behavioural output. Without a trainable temperament and favourable behavioural attributes, horses cannot succeed in high level competition. Moreover, the primary organ of behavioural control and temperament manifestation is the horse’s brain.
Kirsty Roberts, RAU PhD student and principal author, said: “We found that high Spontaneous Blink Rate (SBR), a non-invasive measure of dopamine, was correlated with increasing anxiety. In contrast, low SBR was correlated with increasing docility. In human medicine, similar alterations in temperament are used as early indicators for dopamine dysfunction to enable early treatment, thereby improving prognosis. Horses also suffer dopamine disorders, including stereotypic behaviour and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction. As such monitoring alterations in temperament could prove useful for the horse to identify the likelihood to develop dopaminergic disorders allowing early intervention, thus improving welfare.”
Kirsty’s research paves the way towards better targeted selection and training strategies. It is hoped that this will optimise competition performance and welfare status of the domestic horse.
Dr Meriel Moore-Colyer, Dean of the School of Equine Management and Science at the RAU, said: “Research in equine science at the University is going from strength to strength. We currently have three full-time PhD and seven Masters by Research students, investigating a variety of exciting and novel topics in behaviour, digestive physiology, and respiratory health.
“In keeping with our research mission, all of the projects combine fundamental and applied aspects, so the results have real relevance to the industry and will increase our understanding of how to improve equine health and welfare.”
Read the full article in the Physiology and Behaviour journal.