Copelin, C., Hayman, B., Bergeron, R. et al. 2024. Compliance or confusion? The usefulness of blindfolding horses as a handling technique. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 271, 106180.

Blindfolds have commonly been suggested to make horses more tractable in emergency or high-stress situations such as barn fire evacuations or trailer loading. However, little research has been done on the veracity of this claim. Two studies were conducted to examine the impact of blindfolds on ease of handling. In Study 1, 33 riding lesson horses were led from a familiar stall both blindfolded and unblindfolded. In Study 2, 27 of these horses were then led through an obstacle course both blindfolded and unblindfolded that required them to weave through cones, back up through a chute, walk across a tarp and pass through a gate made of pool noodles that brushed their flanks. For both studies, time taken to complete each phase of the test (Study 1: haltering, blindfolding, exiting stall; Study 2: each of the four obstacles) was recorded, as well as heart rate difference from baseline, lead rope pressure and frequency of avoidant or resistant behaviours. Results were analyzed using a mixed model with post-hoc Tukey-Kramer comparisons to investigate the relationship between variables. Generally, blindfolded horses required more time and greater lead rope pressure for handling and displayed higher frequencies of avoidant (p < 0.05) and active refusal behaviour (p < 0.04) in Study 1 and for the cones and backing up obstacles in Study 2. Conversely, when navigating the visually frightening “gate” obstacle in Study 2, blindfolded horses required less time (p = 0.0053) and lead rope pressure (p = 0.0049) and demonstrated fewer avoidant (p < 0.0001) or refusal behaviours (p = 0.0009) than unblindfolded horses. Blindfolded horses showed a greater heart rate increase from baseline while being led in Study 1 (p = 0.0226). Blindfolding did not have an effect on heart rate in Study 2 (p = 0.1672), but horses demonstrated reduced heart rate difference from baseline during their second attempt at the obstacle course regardless of blindfolding status (p < 0.0001). These findings suggest that blindfolding may be a beneficial tool when navigating visually frightening stimuli and time is not a concern. However, in emergency scenarios such as barn fire evacuations, blindfolding is likely to increase lead time and difficulty of handling, which could negatively impact the success of a rescue and put human and animal lives at risk. Future research is required to test the efficacy of blindfolds in a more realistically simulated emergency environment.

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