6 February 2024

Conflict behaviour in Icelandic horses during elite competition

Icelandic horse // Dreamstime.com
📷 287592250 | Horse © Walter Stiedenroth | Dreamstime.com

Christensen, J. W., Jensen, D., & von Borstel, U. U. K. (2024)
Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Elsevier


Sport horse welfare is currently under scrutiny. Among other issues, it has been pointed out that behavioural signs of discomfort are frequently overlooked during training and competitions. Previous studies reported a relatively high prevalence of these types of behaviour (e.g., tail swishing, mouth opening – typically jointly labelled ‘conflict behaviour’) in elite level dressage and show jumping warmblood horses. This study aimed to investigate the prevalence of conflict behaviour in Icelandic horses competing at elite level in breed-specific gait competitions. We used online video recordings from a competition in Iceland, including two different competitions (MD22, Fivegait F1: n = 25, and Loose-rein Tölt T2: n = 24 participating horses). The recordings were viewed at slow speed (x 0.25) enabling a detailed recording of the horses’ behavioural expressions. Mouth opening was the most frequently observed behaviour and occurred more in pace and tölt (Fivegait F1, P<0.001). In T2, mouth opening was more frequent in short-rein tölt than during loose-rein tölt (P<0.001). Sudden head movements, tail swishing and undesired gait changes also occurred, but less frequently. An elongated upper lip was observed in 12 of the 24 participating horses in T2, but only in short-rein tölt, suggesting that upper lip elongation is related to rein tension. We conclude that mouth movements (mouth opening and an elongated upper lip) are common behavioural expressions in Icelandic horses competing at elite level. Further studies are required to reveal the significance of these behaviours in terms of horse welfare.

Conflict behaviour in Icelandic horses during elite competition (pdf)