Horse Behavior: Background Music In The Barn Logo

Question Category: Horse Behavior

Question: Julie,

First, thank you for taking out the time to answer my emails. I have a question and I didn’t see a separate area on your site to submit questions. I hope this is appropriate. My question is this: In a book that I am reading the writer states that music with schmaltzy background is soothing to horses. Is this accurate and what exactly is this kind of music?


Answer: Jennifer,

Thanks for the question, it is a good one. While I cannot answer the question of what exactly schmaltzy music is, I can address whether or not it is a good idea to play background music in barns.

Traditionally, barns have often played background music softly in an attempt to calm and pacify the horses. Recent research has shown that this practice is not such a good idea and when you think about it from the horse’s point of view, you’ll understand why. From the human point of view, we like background music and find it a comforting distraction. I’ve got music playing right now and I almost always do when I am working in the office or in the barn. But imposing that practice on horses is another excellent example of anthropomorphism, or instilling human characteristics on an animal.

Horses rely on sensory input from all of their senses, particularly hearing, vision and smell, to protect themselves from harm or from attack by predators. A horse’s sense of hearing is much keener than human’s; they hear much higher and much lower decibels. A horse’s sense of hearing is very unique in that their ears can rotate a full 180 degrees to funnel in sounds and the ears can rotate separately so that they can listen in one direction with one ear and another direction with the other ear, at the same time. All of these characteristics show how important a horse’s hearing is to his safety and survival.

When you play background music, no matter if it is “schmaltzy” or rap, it takes away a horse’s ability to hear the sounds of his environment. Horses learn to recognize routine sounds in their environment and not be bothered by them but they will notice new sounds quite easily. Without background music playing, horses will hear, for instance, a human drive up, get out of his car, walk toward the barn and pause to open the door. Horses are so keen to sounds that it is likely they will learn to recognize the sounds of different cars and the sounds of different people walking. By the time the person actually enters the barn, the horse is expecting him and even knows it is someone familiar and so he does not need to be alarmed.

On the contrary, with music playing, the horse may not hear all the many sounds that led to the person’s approach to the barn and the horse may be suddenly startled to see a human appear without the normal and natural warnings he would have had by hearing the person’s approach. The reality is that the horse will be more at ease when he can hear and analyze all the natural sounds of his environment.

This research was done at Cornell University by one of my favorite equine behaviorists, Dr. Katherine Houpt. Once I read the research, it all made such perfect sense to me and a practice that I had witnessed all my life suddenly seemed to make no sense at all. Of course, there is no real proof one way or the other that playing music is either good or bad for horses, but I believe that we need to keep horses in as close to a natural environment as we can, within reason. So in my barn, my horses get to listen to NPR when I am out there working, but at all other times the barn is quiet so that they can have the peacefulness they need. I would guess schmatlzy music would be something like Donny and Marie Osmond 😉


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