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Walk on to most yards or stables and you are almost certain to find a radio blasting out some tunes, usually for the benefit of the human occupants; but what do our horses think of our musical tastes? Is there any evidence that they have feelings for or against music?

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Very few studies have been undertaken in hearing in horses

Hearing declines in humans and many animals as we age, one study demonstrated that older horses, aged 15-18, showed fewer responses to sounds than their younger cohorts. Horses are thought to hear higher frequencies than humans. This may explain why they can appear startled at a noise that we cannot hear. There may also be a genetic component to hearing loss in the horse. However, it is not a problem that we tend to see clinically; it is generally accepted that some degree of hearing loss is inevitable, but rarely causes a problem. 

But can music help horses to relax? 

A small study investigated whether classical music could reduce the incidence of stereotypical behaviour in stabled horses. Stereotypical behaviour can be defined as a repetitive action which lacks any apparent function, like box walking or weaving. In this experiment, the researchers played classical music into a barn for several hours each day. The incidence of observed stereotypical behaviours was reduced when classical music was played, suggesting that it has a potential relaxing effect on horses. 

In a different study, geriatric horses were played new age music to see if this promoted relaxation. Unlike in the previously mentioned study, the researchers looked at heart rate and heart rate variability instead of abnormal behaviours. The researchers postulated that older horses may be more likely to suffer from low mood due to chronic illnesses such as osteoarthritis. Low mood may have an adverse effect on the welfare of the animal. As an aside, horses on long term box rest seem happier when the environment is enriched, for example with companions, or toys. So it does make sense that anything to improve quality of life should be encouraged. Similarly, in humans, research has shown that positive emotional experiences can help to reduce overall patient suffering and may even enhance the effects of treatment. 

However, while the results of the study into geriatric horses were initially positive, they were somewhat disappointing in the long term

They found that for the first week of music, the horses did seem more relaxed based on clinical parameters. However, this effect tapered off over several weeks of therapy. 

A similar study was carried out on racehorses; who are also subject to periods of stress during training, but are less likely to suffer from chronic pain. In this particular study, horses were examined to make sure that they were free from orthopaedic issues before the start of the experiment; which ran for the duration of the training and racing year. As with the geriatric horses, heart rate measurements were lower in the horses listening to music. This suggests a reduction in stress levels, and similarly, the effects started to diminish with time. 

Interestingly, this study with racehorses found that those exposed to music were more likely to win prizes

This was true, even after the cardiac effects had returned to pre-experiment levels. So, it seems that in the short term, at least, music can help to reduce stress levels, but a longer-term improvement is lacking. This study did not take into account the response of the body to training. But they did have a control group of horses to compare to so that any effects of exercise could be reduced when interpreting the data. 

Perhaps a more varied musical repertoire is needed? 

One drug company has produced a track specially designed to aid relaxation in horses; which owners can try out to see if it has any effect on their animals! Interestingly, in the study with racehorses, they also examined the effect of massage three times a week on heart rate and cortisol levels and found that massage treatment led to a greater reduction in stress than the music. 

As to the all-important question, which type of music do they prefer? 

One UK based study found that horses were more relaxed when listening to Classical or Country music but were less enamoured by Jazz or Rock. Although perhaps your own horse has a different preference, which would be an interesting study to conduct on your yard! 

Are there any other situations in which music can help? 

During periods of fireworks, such as bonfire night in the UK, it can be helpful to play music to your horses; as well as keeping a close eye on them. Music does not need to be loud enough to drown out the fireworks, that would have to be extremely loud. But it should help to take the edge off the sudden noises. 

Many owners enjoy riding their horses to music or watching displays of ridden and groundwork to music. As the previously mentioned studies have shown, it certainly doesn’t do any harm. The bottom line is that if it makes you both feel good and adds an extra layer of interest to those groundwork sessions, then it is to be encouraged!

So, as we can see, we should not ban the radio from the yard, although perhaps reasonably peaceful music is more appropriate than some loud rock! 

There is some evidence that music can help our horses to relax a little, at least in the short term. In terms of our own horses, undergoing periods of stress, or box rest, massage and music may help to improve their quality of life a little, but including other experiences such as more time outside, if possible and greater interaction with other horses will also be beneficial. In addition, we must not forget about reducing other stressors like pain. Please speak to your vet about ways to reduce stress and to identify any physical issues that may be contributing to pain or low mood in your horse. 

References and further reading:

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