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Physiol Behav. 2002 Jun 1;76(2):289-96.

Heart rate and heart rate variability during a novel object test and a handling test in young horses.

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Division of Animal Sciences, Institute for Animal Science and Health, P.O. Box 65, NL-8200 AB, Lelystad, The Netherlands.


Forty-one Dutch Warmblood immature horses were used in a study to quantify temperamental traits on the basis of heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) measures. Half of the horses received additional training from the age of 5 months onwards; the other half did not. Horses were tested at 9, 10, 21 and 22 months of age in a novel object and a handling test. During the tests, mean HR and two heart variability indices, e.g. standard deviation of beat-to-beat intervals (SDRR) and root mean square of successive beat-to-beat differences (rMSSD), were calculated and expressed as response values to baseline measures. In both tests, horses showed at all ages a significant increase in mean HR and decrease in HRV measures, which suggests a marked shift of the balance of the autonomic nervous system towards a sympathetic dominance. In the novel object test, this shift was more pronounced in horses that had not been trained. Furthermore, statistical analysis showed that the increase in mean HR could not be entirely explained by the physical activity. The additional increase in HR, the nonmotor HR, was more pronounced in the untrained horses compared to the trained. Hence, it is suggested that this nonmotor HR might be due to the level of emotionality. HR variables showed consistency between years, as well as within the second year. These tests bring about a HR response in horses, part of which may indicate a higher level of emotionality; and horses show individual consistency of these HR variables over ages. Therefore, it is concluded that mean HR and HRV measures used with these tests quantify certain aspects of a horse's temperament.

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