Even though the lives of horses and humans have been intertwined for millennia, their reactions remain little understood. In her doctoral thesis, Marie Peeters takes an interest in the stress levels of the domestic horse during competitions and when they are hospitalized, with a view to improving their well-being.
It is becoming more and more appropriate in veterinary medicine not only to think about the physical well-being of an animal, but also its physical and mental well-being. It is in this context that Marie Peeters, a researcher at the department of Veterinary Ethology and Animal well-being of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Liege began her doctoral research. Measuring stress levels in the domestic horse was already her chosen subject for her Master thesis in animal biology (2006), which was a genuine prelude to the thesis she successfully defended in December 2011 at the Faculty of Sciences (1). For this lover of horses who is more interested in understanding the behavior of the animal than the results obtained during competitions, it was of vital importance to develop the practical tools to measure the stress levels and thus assess the well-being of the domesticated horse (Equus caballus), considered to be a particularly reactive species. “I wanted to make a contribution to the understanding of horses, animals whose reactions are still little understood even though they have been domesticated for a very long time. These sudden reactions by an animal of such an imposing size can often be frightening. Sometimes unpredictable, the reactions of horses can prove to be dangerous for those who handle them”. The researcher, who has been surrounded by horses since childhood has noted that even though horse-riding has become generally more accessible, this does not mean that horse-owners have a better understanding of their animals. “Understanding the way the domestic horse reacts to stress undoubtedly contributes to the well-being of the animal. Intense stress, which can cause a change in the biological resources of the animal, can affect the normal functioning of other biological resources such as growth, for example. Studying stress also makes it possible to better anticipate (and therefore reduce) the risk of accidents incurred by the horses, and also by those people who handle them. Stress therefore, as you can imagine, has a direct economic impact on the owner as well as on the rider. Indeed, following a stressful situation, the performance of the horse and rider couple can be seen to decline, and moreover, the stress risks causing serious accidents”. Prevention is therefore better than cure.