A Little To The Left: Does “Sidedness” Indicate Stress?

German researchers have completed a study that shows horses tend to become more “left-eyed” and “left-legged” when they are in stressful situations. This shift suggests that horses may be using the right side of their brains when confronting challenges; the right side of the brain deals with emotions. When the horse learns to handle the stress, they tend to revert back to left-brain hemisphere processing. The left side of a horse’s brain deals with routine, reports The Horse.

Researcher Isabell Marr suggests that changes in laterality could be an effective tool in monitoring how horses are handling changes in their management or training. A shift to the left suggests a horse is stressed. Observations should be made about how often the horse uses his left side compared to his use of the right.

Sensory laterality is a horse’s tendency to use one side of his face more than the other; using one side of the body more than the other is motor laterality. A stressed horse may shift left, but when he learns to cope with the stress, he will generally shift back to the right. Laterality is also associated with personality. Horses that tend to step forward with their right front, which indicates left brain dominance, tend to be more optimistic toward new stimuli.

The researchers followed 12 3-year-old sport horses as the geldings were shifted from being field-kept in a herd with no work regimen to box stalls and the beginning of under-saddle training. The scientists looked for correlations in laterality shifts and fecal stress indicators.

They found that when the horses were first moved into the box stalls that they preferred to use their left eye and ear for exploring and listening. By the second week they preferred the left leg over the right, observed by which leg they placed forward while eating.

The scientists conclude that laterality could be used to monitor how a horse is handling environmental changes; ongoing laterality may indicate a negative effect on his welfare.

Read more at The Horse.

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