If the washed-up, frequently miserable equine actor BoJack from the Netflix animated series BoJack Horseman was a real horse, he probably wouldn’t be snorting too much, if at all. That’s because a new study suggests a rather unexpected answer to the question of why horses snort — they do so whenever they’re relaxed and happy.
The act of snorting has been thought of as one of the most normal things a horse can do, with not much significance attached to the process, as explained by a report from BBC News. That changed recently when a team of researchers in France published a study in the journal PLOS One that sought to test the theory that horses snort whenever they are in a positive mood.
According to BBC News, horses are harder to read than other animals, such as cats, when it comes to figuring out how they may be feeling at a given time. Horses are known to give off mixed signals in many instances, as their heart rates could go up whenever they know they’re about to be fed, but could go down whenever they are being groomed, which is generally thought to be one of their favorite activities. Likewise, there are two schools of thought with playful horses — some believe that they are really happy, while others note that playfulness could be a horse’s way of reducing social tension or coping with stress.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed the behavior of horses in riding schools and horses who live in conditions similar to their natural habitat. Those in the former group were ridden for four to 12 hours a week and closely supervised a riding teacher, while also being given varying amounts of time to stroll around on the grass. The horses in the latter group were sometimes used for “relaxed outdoor leisure riding,” but had mostly stayed on pasture and went around in small groups.
While it might have been a time-consuming process, as hinted by BBC News, the methodologies used by the researchers were simple enough, as they gazed at the horses for five minutes and took note of their snorting patterns. These patterns were then compared against the position of the animals’ ears and the nature of what they were doing at the time; horses whose ears are pointing upward are typically under emotional stress, while those whose ears point forward usually are in a positive mood.
Previously, it was thought that the reason why horses snort is quite simple, as snorting could help clear irritants such as phlegm and flies. The new study, however, might have debunked this, as the horses analyzed in the research were more likely to snort if they were out in pasture. The horses in the riding school group snorted only about five times an hour, a figure which was approximately one-half of the snorts product by those in “naturalistic” conditions. Furthermore, the researchers found that snorting was closely linked to positive moods and the horses’ corresponding ear position pointing forward.
All in all, the horses snorted a total of 560 times while being observed, with one horse snorting only 0.75 times per hour, and another snorting 12.8 times over the same timeframe. The animals were found to snort the most while eating, or during what the researchers termed as “slow exploratory” walks, and notably did not snort at all during occasions where they were acting aggressively toward humans.
“The snort is associated with more positive contexts (in pasture, in feeding) in horses,” read a statement from University of Rennes researcher Dr. Mathilde Stomp, lead author on the new study.
“It is less frequent in horses showing an altered welfare. Snorts appear as a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions which could help identify situations appreciated by horses.”
According to the Daily Mail, the tendency to snort when feeling happy or relaxed might not be unique to horses, as Stomp had also observed a similar pattern when she was analyzing rhinos for an earlier study.