A scientific study just published from a group of researchers at the University of Normandie in France asked the question "Could snorts inform us on how horses perceive riding?”
Many owners are aware of the research into behaviours shown by horses that may indicate pain or discomfort but this is possibly the first time anyone has studied “snorting” during riding.
The researchers first studied 127 healthy horses with no history of headshaking or respiratory disease (which could influence snorting behaviour) in 16 riding schools and found that there was a large variation in the amount of snorting between the different centres. They then looked at 37 horse and rider pairing and tried to relate snorting to the horses’ posture, the riders hand positions and rein contact. Horses were seen to snort almost twice as often at walk, trot and canter when on a loose rein and at walk with a horizontal/low neck position. So it is suggested that horses snort more when they are relaxed or comfortable and possibly less when they are anxious or uncomfortable.
One factor that may have had an influence and which was unfortunately not reported was the bedding used in each riding school or the surface the horses were ridden on. These may also have affected air quality and hence snorting behaviour.
The authors concluded that “The value of snorts as an indicator of positive emotions in horses seems therefore to extend to the riding situation (confirming Dyson et al. (2018) and König von Borstel and Glißman (2014) earlier anecdotal reports): they could therefore be useful tools for identifying better practices.” An interesting study but clearly an area which needs some further work before we can be confident in interpreting snorting as a sign of stress or discomfort in horses when being ridden.
Stomp, M., Masson, A., Henry, S., Hausberger, M., & Lesimple, C. (2020). Could snorts inform us on how horses perceive riding? Behavioural Processes, 104041. doi:10.1016/j.beproc.2020.104041
Link to Study: HERE