Muscular tension as an indicator of acute stress in horses

Ellen M. Rankins, Helio C. Manso Filho, Karyn Malinowski, Kenneth H. McKeever

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Horses’ muscular tension during acute stress remains unexplored. Our aim was to assess muscular, behavioral, cortisol, and hematocrit responses to social isolation (ISO), novel object exposure (NOV), and sham clipping (CLIP). Altered stress responses were expected. Eight mature Standardbred horses (four mares and four geldings) were exposed to acute stressors and a control period (CON) in a balanced, replicated 4×4 Latin Square experimental design with 3 min treatment periods and 10 min washout periods. Surface electromyography collected from the masseter, brachiocephalas, cervical trapezius, and longissimus dorsi was processed to derive average rectified value (ARV) and median frequency (MF) during the initial, middle, and final 30 s of treatments. ARV and MF data were log transformed then analyzed using a mixed model, repeated measures ANOVA along with plasma cortisol and hematocrit. Behavior data were analyzed using a negative binomial distribution mixed model ANOVA. CLIP resulted in greater (p < 0.05) log ARV in the masseter (1.5 + 1.5%, mean + SD) and brachiocepahlas (2.2 + 2.0%) than CON (−1.2 + 1.4%, 0.1 + 1.5%). ISO resulted in greater (p < 0.05) log ARV in the masseter (0.2 + 1.3%) and cervical trapezius (0.6 + 1.3%) than CON (−1.2 + 1.4%, −1.0 + 1.7%). ISO increased (p < 0.05) the total number of stress-related behaviors and hematocrit. No changes in cortisol were observed. We suggest that muscular tension can be used as an indicator of acute stress in horses. Incorporating muscle activity into an array of measurements may provide a more nuanced understanding of stress responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere15220
JournalPhysiological Reports
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


  • acute stress
  • behavior
  • equine
  • surface EMG


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