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July 14, 2022 — Dr. Kelly Diehl talks with Dr. Kris Hiney about horse behavior and how a deeper understanding of behavior can have a major impact on horse welfare. Dr. Hiney talks about her new study focused on teaching horse owners, veterinarians and caregivers how to recognize subtle clues to horse affective states, and what she hopes to accomplish long-term to improve horse welfare


0:00:09.0 Kelly Diehl: Welcome to Fresh Scoop Episode 46, Improving Horse Welfare Through Understanding Behavior. I'm your host, Dr. Kelly Diehl, Morris Animal Foundation Senior Director of Science and Communication. And today we'll talk to Dr. Kris Hiney. Dr. Hiney is equine extension specialist at Oklahoma State University. And welcome, Kris.

0:00:31.3 Kris Hiney: Thank you, Kelly. I'm happy to be here.

0:00:34.1 KD: Before we get started, I always ask everyone to tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you ultimately to study equine behavior?

0:00:44.3 KH: Well, I have been in academia, I guess now for goodness, 20 years. Background, I was a typical kid that did 4-H, then I did some Appaloosa shows, and then kind of Road Reiners. I've always kind of been interested in the behavior side because I've also trained dogs on the side as well. And ironically kind of getting involved in equine behavior, I used to try to do a lot of undergraduate research. And when you don't really have a budget or a lab and have all the ability to do a lot of different assays and things like that, what we could do with students is do a lot of recording behaviors and kind of testing behavioral hypotheses. So, I started kind of playing around with it a little bit more with my undergrads and again, because I was interested in it from, you know, the training side of it, as well as kind of that other approach when we're training dogs it's kind of developed into a little bit more of a centered focus.

0:01:52.6 KD: Oh great. I think a lot of folks who are listening are... Some will be horse people, but we have a pretty mixed group. And I wanted to, and for my own edification as well, can we start with a little bit about the background history and on when and why people really started to think about equine behavior and particularly studying equine behavior.

0:02:19.5 KH: Well, if you want to go way back, I guess, I think anybody who has been successful as a horseman has to somewhat understand equine behavior. So, when we think about people that are true icons, the Ray Hunts and Tom Dorrances of the world, they really had to study the horse and be able to interpret it correctly and so I think they were kind of those applied behaviorists. But if you go, again, go to the way back, Xenophon is probably the most recorded person that really studied horse behavior. So, if you look at the Art of Horsemanship, published in 430 BC, like that's a while ago, he had... His treatise really can help provide people good guidance today. The idea that they should be desensitized, you should treat them kindly, and recognize when the horse is scared and nervous, like to me, that's still the study. Maybe he didn't publish anything. He didn't have that same process. But there were people that were paying and trying to interpret how that animal is acting and what is the best way to approach dealing with them.

0:03:37.4 KD: Well, that's really interesting actually. I think we take it for granted some of... Understanding behavior. I know that cat and feline behavior we're learning a lot more after we've lived with cats for centuries. And I wanted to ask you not being a horse person, what do people get wrong? We get a lot wrong about dogs and cats, even though we live with them. What do people commonly get wrong about equine behavior and welfare and where do we misinterpret?

0:04:10.5 KH: I think failure to recognize what the animal is, right? So, this is a herd animal that is a prey animal that perceives the world and identifies fear and stressors and is worried about safety. Where a lot of times horses are punished or blamed for being naughty, or they're just trying to embarrass you, or they're doing this because they know they can get away with it may not actually be true. And again, you're overlooking the fear response, the stress response. Is that animal even capable of learning, right? So, we know if there's too high of a stress and they're switching between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, the brain has to be in a relaxed state to learn. And I think people just put too much of their own emotions into the situation and anthropomorphize instead of looking at it from the animal's perspective.

0:05:08.7 KH: And that's what happens in dogs and cats as well, right? We're putting our emotions in a situation onto them where they have completely different motivators most of the time. So, they may not be trying to be mean, naughty, awful, anything like that. They may be in fear or in pain, right? Because the horse is such a stoic animal, they don't vocalize like our dogs and cats do, that people don't often recognize all those little behavior signs that yeah, that actually may be telling you, "Hey, I don't feel very good right now. And maybe I just can't do that right now."

0:05:39.0 KD: I think you reminded me something that I forget, which is that horses are a prey species. I think we look at them and we think they're big and powerful. And I certainly forget that they have a different outlook on themselves, which is not that I'm big and powerful necessarily, but that I am vulnerable. And that was a great reminder. Let's move on to your study, which congratulations again. I think for the audience out there, just to let you guys know, we have had a donor recently in the last couple years, Dr. Wendy Koch, who's been really interested in equine behavior and has really been instrumental in pushing the Foundation to look at equine behavior and offer some granting opportunities. And Kris is one of our recipients. Review your methods a little bit for us, your grant and what you'll be looking at and measuring.

0:06:41.8 KH: Yeah. So, this one may be a little... Maybe more strange for people to think about because we're not measuring anything about the horses. This is all centered on changing people. And so, what essentially we're going to be doing is creating an educational instrument that focuses really on people's ability to interpret that affective state. And so how we would do that, there's a whole field of data collection which we talk about, which is qualitative research versus quantitative. To put it in a nutshell, if we're talking about quantitative research, and if we were talking about behavior we would be looking at the heart rate or levels of cortisol or the temperature of the eye relative to the horse versus qualitative data is not numerical. It's trying... Focus groups interviews, trying to get at what people think and believe, and so what we're going to be doing is essentially creating this educational tool and then using some qualitative research methods to have people describe, what do they see, how are they interpreting it? Because by allowing people to use their own words, and this is a model that's called free choice profiling, where people don't have a list of words to describe, so they wouldn't say stressed bored and anxious, they wouldn't have a list, versus you allow them to say, "This is what I see."

0:08:14.6 KH: And actually allowing people to verbalize what they see can be a little bit more of a way to get some insight. And so, this is something that is used in the behavior field, because it's important when we're looking at animal behavior, it all comes down to the human so if we're going to talk about welfare, it's how we treat them and how we assess what we see. Do we recognize what's actually happening? And so, the premise of our entire study is to develop this educational intervention, but then test it, test the intervention to see, "Did we actually create any cognitive change," so not only can they do better on a test, but ultimately can we get some perception changes, so how you think changes in the people that we provide this instrument to.

0:09:06.5 KD: And I wondered, because we may come up with this, is there any way for our listeners to participate in your study?

0:09:16.0 KH: Yeah, absolutely. So, we're kind of doing this in a multi-step approach because we want this to be good, right, so it's not just "Hey, let's do a webinar and call it good," we actually want to really see if this is working. So, there will kind of some different phases and in the first phase where we're creating the instrument and then we're going to pilot it to a group and essentially collect data and get feedback from that group on what could we do better, how to improve it to make sure that it has gone through a very, very thorough vetting process. And then after we've done all of the editing and revisions and taking that information in from our external audience, then we're going to do essentially another round of this where we're going to do this in a true scientific fashion, so we're actually going to have a control group. So, we'll get people that are interested in kind of learning some of this material and we'll allow half of those people the ability to have access to the educational material and the other half a wait list and essentially then test these two groups and their ability to correctly interpret affective states.

0:10:32.6 KH: So that's how you can create a control group and a test group, and then again, see did we really create some change in these individuals? And then certainly after we've collected the data, those that were on the control group, we'll let them have access to the curriculum since they were interested, but we need that kind of side-by-side comparison. And our goal then is, if we've gone through these essentially two rounds and keep modifying this curriculum that we want to then be able to offer it to all of our industry partners, so everybody that Morris, touches everybody that Certified Horsemanship Association touches, everybody that AQHA touches that we would offer this like, "Hey, we really want to try to create some increased awareness," and how I put this, if we can even move the needle a little bit, if we can just get people to think for a second, just pause and say, "Oh, wait a minute, what is this horse's behavior telling me?" it may de-escalate those situations that can end up with poor welfare. And so, to me, that's what's important. We're just... We're trying to move the need a little bit, trying to create something that is broadly applicable for people to learn a little bit more.

0:11:44.7 KD: And that was actually going to be my next question, you kind of covered it, which is what you hope to come out of your research findings. Is there anything else that you hope this may lead to, like a first step toward something else that you want to do?

0:12:01.2 KH: Well, I think if you look at this... And this is a successful model. I would always say my other passion is the dog side, there's just as much misunderstanding in the... Probably more, because more people own them, right, and because they're within our houses, but it is a potential tool methodology to try to help improve welfare in a variety of species. You have to recreate it, right, and you have to do the same thing because it's a completely different subject, but to me this is a great way to say, hey, if we can create a little bit of thought process change in people to recognize that yes, animals have emotions and that's dictating a little bit in how they act, then I think we're doing something good.

0:12:49.6 KD: Awesome. Yeah, though that's pretty interesting, because I think probably people out there are more familiar with incorrect dog information, and it's quite a tussle, and sometimes when that embeds, doesn't it, like certain thoughts, it's really hard to read it back out.

0:13:06.8 KH: Yeah, they become ingrained, yeah like the whole wolf pack alpha thing based off of captive wolves not wild populations. You can get a lot of wrongness embedded into people's mythology about an animal.

0:13:21.9 KD: Oh, I totally... I think that I struggle with that in the dog world, and I'm sure it... There are really deeply embedded things in the horse training world as well.

0:13:35.0 KH: Oh sure. Yeah.

0:13:36.0 KD: So, I'm really excited about this, because I think it could really help, like you said, have sort of... I'm probably using the word incorrectly as we think of it scientifically, translational, [chuckle] because we often think of animals and humans, but it does have translational potential to other species, and I think that's really, really fascinating.

0:13:58.0 KH: And maybe I'm going to get too hopeful here, but any time I think if we can stop and even consider the other entity in a dyad, right? So typically, we talk about the horse-human dyad, so the horse and person together, but if we can say, "Okay, I can recognize their emotional state and take a step back and think about it, do I then have the ability in a human-human dyad to do the same thing? Can I just take a second and say, where are they coming from, what is their emotional state?" And that may change a little bit to be a little bit more empathetic on, hey, let's create a little more understanding here.

0:14:33.5 KD: Right. So, a really ambitious, maybe.

[overlapping conversation]

0:14:36.8 KH: Well, that's way too ambitious, okay.


0:14:39.4 KD: But it's a good thought, if it can change behavior. And we've seen that, like how does participation, for example, in our Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, has actually changed other behavior in people. Generally, I hear a lot about, it makes them think about care of all their animals, just by merely being in a study that forces them to look at data, and go to their vet all the time, and it's kind of something we didn't anticipate. So, I agree with you, maybe your study will just bring some awareness to people that could influence other behavior, which is really a cool thing to kind of think about. What other projects are you currently working on?

0:15:29.5 KH: So, my other projects, I guess, are more just the day-to-day. [chuckle] Because I'm in extension. So, I work with some undergrad students who are working on doing... What is the prevalence of anthelmintic resistance in Oklahoma? And so, doing more like student projects, things like that, working on developing some 4-H curriculum that people can use through some online learning as well that has activities and things like that. So, the rest of my life is kind of more of the day job, and then I've had some colleagues that we've played around a little bit in canine nutrition as well, just because I'm awful interested in dogs, too.


0:16:18.4 KD: Cool. So, Kris, we're going to wrap up now, but what kind of is your take-home message for our listeners?

0:16:25.3 KH: Again, I think a lot of people misinterpret the horse, because of its nature and it's so stoic in trying to reveal how it's thinking and feeling, and a lot of things that we do create stress in these animals that go unrecognized. And horses, just like dogs and people, some stress up, some stress down. Still stress, right? The animal may still be undergoing the same mental issues, but they show it in different ways. So, the withdrawn, quiet animal in the corner maybe is struggling as much as the one that's stall walking or doing some stereotypic behavior. So, trying to just recognize, hey, what are these signs in that animal, and to think about, hey, can we create some small changes in their life that, again, push the needle towards making it a little bit more positive for the animal.

0:17:29.8 KD: Great. Thanks. And that does it actually for another... For this episode of Fresh Scoop, and once again thanks to Dr. Kris Hiney for joining us. We'll be back with another episode next month that we hope you'll find just as informative. As we know, the science of animal health is ever-changing. It was a good example today, as we think about behavior. And veterinarians need cutting edge research information to give their patients the best possible care. And for all of us, companion animal owners and that include horses, we want to do the best thing for our animals as well. And that's why we're here. You can find us on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcast and Stitcher. And if you like today's episode, we'd sure appreciate it if you could take a moment to rate us, because that will help others find our podcast. And, of course, to learn more about Morris Animal Foundation's work, you can go to There, you'll see just how we bridge science and resources to advance the health of animals. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and I'll put in another quick plug for our equine behavior sort of initiative that we've started out, and you can donate actually directly to it, which is a new development, so we're really excited about that. And I'm Dr. Kelly Diehl and we'll talk soon.