Research by both staff and students is carried out at the Equestrian Centre and in collaboration with external partners. The overriding focus of this research is to enhance the performance and welfare of the horse, and to investigate the horse-human relationship. The facilities at the Equestrian Centre enable staff and students to conduct a range of in-hand and ridden projects and the large projection screens allow observation and feedback to occur simultaneously or to be recorded and played back at a later date. Particular emphasis is on the following areas:
Performance analysis of horse and rider
Video analysis is common in other sports and has been used to highlight weaknesses in technique and subsequently enhance performance in riders. DartfishProSuite® version 5.0 has been used to conduct a preliminary investigation into the effects of jumping saddle design on rider posture. The results of this study were presented at the World Congress of Performance Analysis of Sport IX at the University of Worcester (July 2012). This analysis was carried out on riders on the Racewood Horse simulator in the performance analysis room at the Equestrian Centre.
The Racewood horse simulator has also been used with Tekscanpressure mapping technology to assess rider balance and saddle pressure in a number of undergraduate and postgraduate research projects.
The visual skills of equestrian athletes have been investigated using mobile eye tracking technology. The ASL Mobile Eye was used to identify gaze behaviour in show jump riders and this technology was trialled by international show jump rider and trainer Tim Stockdale. A report on this can be found on Tim's website.
The published paper by Hall et al (2014) following this research can be found here: Keeping Your Eye on the Rail: Gaze Behaviour of Horse Riders Approaching a Jump
Further use of mobile eye tracking technology is being carried out to identify gaze behaviour in other equestrian sports. Recently data was collected in collaboration with Tracksys (Nottingham) using SMI mobile eye tracking glasses to monitor where carriage drivers look.
At this year's International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference in Edinburgh the same mobile eye tracking glasses were used on the practical day to demonstrate their use in carriage driving. We are also working on ways of monitoring where our equine partners are looking, but that is currently ‘works in progress'. This is a development from previous research in the visual ability of the horse and its effect on management and training.
Assessing ridden behaviour
In their rules for dressage events the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) state that ‘Welfare must take precedence over all other demands' and that the object of and general principles of dressage includes ‘the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education'. Here at NTU we are researching methods of identifying what actually constitutes a ‘happy athlete'. Current evidence is reviewed in a paper entitled: Assessment of Ridden Horse Behaviour and staff and student research projects aim to address this question. We have evaluated the use of novel methods of assessing mental state in horses, for example monitoring changes in eye temperature using infrared thermography (IRT). We found that this measure correlates with other measures such as changes in salivary cortisol concentration, and that signs of stress / anxiety in working horses could be identified using this approach. Behaviour is analysed using the Observer software.
There is much debate surrounding the subjective analysis of ridden behaviour, for example in the judging of dressage tests and in the allocation of the collective marks. Remote eye tracking equipment is used to identify where peple look when assessing ridden horse behaviour and data from this work will be used to contribute to answering the question: ‘What makes a happy equine athlete?' Collaboration with Visiting Fellow Richard Davison (Olympic dressage rider and World Class Performance Manager for British Dressage) will ensure that this research addresses the question at the highest level of the sport.
Monitoring activity patterns
At the Equestrian Centre the horses are housed individually in traditional loose boxes, American barn-style housing and crew yards, as well as regularly being turned out on grassland. The effect of housing type on activity patterns during turnout was monitored using GPS technology (Garmin Forerunner 305) with findings suggesting that horses catch-up on their activity after periods of restricted movement. However, they do not expend unnecessary energy even then and to encourage increased movement of horses when turned out a system of tracks have been devised in one of the grazing areas at the Equestrian Centre.
This GPS technology has been used to monitor donkey activity and it was found that the mean distance travelled (2.259±0.150km) by the herd on a track system was significantly longer than in a standard paddock (1.417±0.367km). Similarly average speed mirrored these results with an average speed of 0.188±0.001km/h on the track which was higher than the standard paddock (0.1180.003km/h).
GPS collars (Lotek 3300s) have also been used to monitor animals used for conservation grazing and the movement of two ponies at Sherwood Pines Country Park is shown below. Valuable information about how areas of land grazed by different species can be obtained in this way and the results used to inform management and stocking strategies.
Assessing feeding behaviour
The impact of management on feeding behaviour has been assessed by both staff and students specialising in nutrition and behaviour. The horse is naturally a ‘trickle feeder' and adopting meal times as part of their feeding regimen may cause health and welfare problems. To address this issue staff at the Equestrian Centre designed a feed container from which the horses could access small amounts of their rations on a continuous basis. This ‘slow feeder' was tested by a post graduate researcher and found to relieve some of the anxiety that sometimes surrounds meal times.
Currently the effect of changing from British summer time to Greenwich mean time on anticipatory behaviour in horses in response to the extra hour is being investigated. Research has also been conducted in diet selection and choice feeding.
International collaboration with the University of Guelph (Canada) has involved staff and students in a project investigating welfare issues associated with the equine meat industry, the preliminary findings of which were presented as a poster at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) conference (York, June 2012). This project facilitated engagement of students in an international project and the educational impact of this approach was presented at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR)(University of Warwick, March 2012).
NTU is a member of the National Equine Welfare Council (NEWC) and is working with various welfare organisations to develop research that is relevant to improving equine welfare in a number of ways. For example we have carried out studies in collaboration with Bransby Home of Rest for Horses (Bransby, Lincoln). Horse-human interactions, social behaviour and enhancing group stability (and facilitating the introduction of newcomers into established groups) are particular areas under investigation. These topics are of importance to welfare organisations that are involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and re-homing of many unwanted equines.
Other welfare-related projects include: An investigation into the effect of summer turnout rugs on body surface temperature of grazing horses. Summer rugs have risen in popularity over the past few years, however very little is known about their effects on a horse's thermoregulatory status. This study investigated how the various rug styles may affect surface temperature.
The findings of staff and student research is presented at national and international events including: the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) annual symposium, the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) conference, World Congress for Performance Analysis of Sport , European Workshop on Equine Nutrition, British Society for Animal Science (BSAS) annual conference and the British Conference of Undergraduate Research (BCUR).
For further details of equine research at NTU please contact Carol Hall (School Research Coordinator) on + 44 (0)115 848 5212 or email.