Equine Science Update
Reports from the world of  equine research.
Effect of colour on behaviour.
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Yellow and blue could be colours to avoid when decorating facilities for horses. Recent research shows that horses are more likely to be startled by those colours, especially when they are on the floor.

Horses often hesitate when faced with changes in colour or type of flooring. For instance, some may resist walking onto black rubber matting, either in a stable or on a loading ramp. But are there some colours that cause more of a problem than others?  A recent study sought to find out if horses are more likely to be startled, or show adverse behaviour, in response to certain colours.

Dr Carol Hall of Nottingham Trent University and Dr Helen Cassaday of Nottingham University collaborated in the study at the Brackenhurst College Campus of the Nottingham Trent University.

They measured how long it took for each horse to walk down a passageway, over, or past mats of different colours. They also recorded whether the horses showed any change in behaviour. The horses’ behaviour was scored on a scale of 1 to 6. A score of 1 indicated that the horse walked or trotted over the mat without hesitating. A score of 6 meant that the horse stopped and would not continue despite encouragement, or reversed away from the mat or turned round.

They considered whether the horses responded differently if the coloured mats were on the floor or on the wall of the passageway. They also assessed whether the horses showed less reaction to the colours if they had encountered them previously.

Over 90% of the reactions to the coloured mat occurred as the horse was about to step on it or walk past it. The reaction was less marked (regardless of colour) if the coloured mat was hanging on the passageway wall.

Horses were more likely to hesitate or show adverse reactions to yellow, white, black and blue mats. In contrast the green red, brown and gray mats had less effect.

The findings agree with what is known about vision in the horse. Other studies have shown that horses appear to be able to discriminate yellow and blue most easily from gray.  The photo pigments of the light-sensitive retinal cones are most sensitive to light in the yellow and blue range of the spectrum.

Horses only appeared to notice the coloured mats when they were placed on the ground. Their behaviour scores were higher and they took longer to walk past the mat. The colours had no significant effect when they were presented on the wall. This came as no surprise to the researchers who had previously demonstrated that horses pay more attention to visual stimuli on the ground than at other levels.

Dr Hall suggests that it may be possible to minimise the risk of adverse behaviour, especially in training situations, by choosing suitable colours for the flooring. She suggests that it is particularly important when considering small areas of contrasting colour (such as loading ramps), or when horses have to move from one floor surface to another.

She adds that it is important to take account of the ways in which equine and human perception differs in order to facilitate management and training in
general. “The sensory system of the horse will determine which environmental features attract the most attention - those that are most noticeable to us are not necessarily the same for the horse. Red traffic signs, for example, probably do not appear bright to the horse, despite their appearance to most of us.”

“Misinterpretations of equine behavioural reactions can often occur as a result of anthropomorphism generally, but in particular as a result of the lack of  appreciation of how differently the horse experiences the world. By furthering our understanding of equine perception, stimuli can be presented to the horse in a far more horse-friendly manner. Equine management and training can thus be
facilitated.”

For more details see:

An investigation into the effect of floor colour on the behaviour of the horse.
CA Hall, HJ Cassaday
Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2006) 99, 301 - 314.
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