How do horses feel about having their manes pulled?

Grey horse tight chin

A recent study by MSc student Louise Nicholls found that horses are unsurprisingly pretty stressed by the process. Louise compared the heart rates and behaviour of 20 horses having their manes pulled or touched. The results are very interesting.

The results showed that the horses mean heart rates were significantly higher when they had their manes pulled than when their manes were touched. The horses also had higher mean heart rates when the mane pulling was started at the poll working down, than at the withers working up.

The horses also moved far more when their manes were pulled compared to mane touching e.g. ears back, standing alert, licking and chewing, a high neck position, head tossing, mouth tight and tail swishing and clamping - indicating they experienced discomfort or pain at the process being performed.

Speaking about the study Louise said "The increased heart rates measured during the mane pulling was combined with behavioural indicators of stress such as rearing, pulling back, a tight mouth etc. The horses used in the study were privately owned horses that were not naive. Each horse was observed during mane pulling 8 times over many weeks. Finally one standard person pulled each of the horses manes during the study."

Louise went on to say "I would definitely advise horse owners to measure their horse's heart rate during mane pulling - even if they are not showing obvious physical behavioral signs of stress. As horses are prey animals and may be passive copers they will not always try to flee away from a painful or stressful situations and could go into a state of learned helplessness and not show any behavioural signs of stress but have a sky high heart rate."

While the horse's stress and discomfort may seem obvious to many horse owners, this appears to be the first time the effects of mane pulling has been studied - so a huge well done to Louise for raising awareness on this subject. I certainly wouldn't like to have my hair pulled out forcibly either. Time to find another way to keep manes tidy - or just leave them as nature intended.

Eventer Kerry Weisselberg has written a great blog on the subject of mane pulling after reading about this research. You can read it on her website here.