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Is Your Horse in a Good Mood? See if It Snorts.

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Horses also snort in negative circumstances, Dr. McDonnell said. If they encounter an aggressive or fearful situation, their “fight or flight” response includes a bump in adrenaline, which dries their mouth and nose. Once the situation resolves and adrenaline levels drop, secretions like saliva and mucus start flowing again, Dr. McDonnell said. She’s watched stallions snorting as their adrenaline levels fall, suggesting that the flow of mucus caused them to make the noise, she said.

Then again, horses probably do use snorting to somehow communicate to others in the herd, alerting them when danger has passed. But that doesn’t translate into knowing if a horse is happy, she added.

While Karyn Malinowski, professor and director of the Rutgers University Equine Science Center in New Jersey, discouraged the practice of ascribing human emotions to animals, she said the new study’s findings made sense to her. The horses she studies display emotions, like sorrow when a close companion dies, so she believes they’re certainly capable of happiness.

Dr. Malinowski said the study also aligns with her physiological research that shows horses are much less stressed when they are allowed to live outside, rather than in stables. In the new study, horses that lived in more natural conditions snorted more often, and even the stabled horses snorted more when they were outside.

“I’ve been studying stress for 40 years. The worst thing you can do for a horse is to keep it inside,” Dr. Malinowski said. Outside, “they’re happier, healthier, the air is fresher.”

Lauren Brubaker, a Ph.D. student at Oregon State University specializing in human-animal interactions, said the study also matches the experience of people in the horseback riding world. “You hear a lot of riders and instructors and trainers who will say they’re looking for horses to do that snorting behavior while they’re riding, because they believe the horses are relaxing and releasing adrenaline,” she said.


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