Studying Horse Depression to Work on Human Depression

Depressed horse

“What use is grief to a horse?”  — Peter Shaffer; Equus

Grief and depression is useful for a horse, but is becoming more useful for researchers of human depression.  A French University studied depression in 59 horses for six months. All of the horses were riding lesson horses, or horses who have to put up with riders of all levels and incompetance.  Most of the horses were members of the Sele Francais breed (French Saddlebreds) but that is because that breed is popular in France than just about any other country in the world.

Depressed horses stand differently from non-depressed horses.  THey also have lower plasma cortisol levels.  The researchers hope that positively determining depression in horses can make horses used as lab animals for human depression.  The researchers also hope that vets and horse caretakers can use these findings to help depressed horses get help.  At least, I think that’s what this means:

Not only could the information obtained in this pilot study provide researchers
with a new model with which to study depression in humans, it could also help
equine veterinarians, behaviorists, and horse owners better assess equine
welfare based on ethologic responses indicative of depression.

I have to admit, I had to scratch my head here.  Horses tend to exhibit “depression” when they are sick or under extreme stress.  When horses are under extreme stress, they tend to show other physical symptoms like being very thin, overgrooming or developing a bad habit like stall weaving or wood eating.  I’m assuming that this study hopes to show behavior of extreme stress before a horse begins a bad habit or stops eating.

But why do we need horses to be models of human depression?  Although we do need more studies on human mental illness, I’m not sure if dragging horses into the lab will help humans any.

If I was a lab animal, I’d be depressed, too.


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