Stomp, M., Leroux, M., Cellier, M. et al. 2018. An unexpected acoustic indicator of positive emotions in horses. PLoS ONE 13(7), e0197898.
Indicators of positive emotions are still scarce and many proposed behavioural markers have proven ambiguous. Studies established a link between acoustic signals and emitter’s internal state, but few related to positive emotions and still fewer considered non-vocal sounds. One of them, the snort, is shared by several perrisodactyls and has been associated to positive contexts in these species. We hypothesized that this could be also the case in horses. In this species, there is a clear need for a thorough description of non-vocal acoustic signals (snorts, snores or blows are often used interchangeably) but overall this sound produced by nostrils during expiration has up to now been mostly considered as having a hygienic function. However, observations revealed that snorts were produced more in some individuals than in others, without relationship with air conditions. We observed 48 horses living in two “extreme” conditions: restricted conditions (single stall, low roughage diet) and naturalistic conditions (stable groups in pasture). The immediate place (e.g. stall/pasture) and the behavioural/postural (behaviour performed/ears positions) contexts of snort production were observed. We additionally performed an evaluation of the welfare state, using validated behavioural (e.g. stereotypies) and postural (e.g. overall ears positions) welfare indicators. The results show that 1) snort production was significantly associated with situations known to be positive for horses (e.g. feeding in pasture) and with a positive internal state (ears in forward or sidewards positions), 2) the riding school horses produced twice as many snorts when in pasture than in stall, 3) the naturalistic population emitted significantly more snorts than riding school ones in comparable contexts, 4) the frequency of snorts was negatively correlated with the composite total chronic stress score (TCSS, reflecting compromised welfare based on the horse’s rank on the different indicators): the lower the TCSS, the higher the snort rate. Snorts therefore appear as reliable indicators of positive emotions.