Clara Wilson’s JRA experience

Even before I was aware of the JRA scheme I was keen to help out on projects done by the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at Sussex. The work I was most interested in concerned the cognitive abilities of horses – an area that the team has done extensive research into already. The JRA provided the perfect opportunity to be fully integrated into this group and get a real taste of what doing a Masters or PhD would be like. The application for the scheme required a research proposal. Learning this skill is vital if I am to undertake future research so it was beneficial to practice this procedure. My supervisor Karen McComb was enormously helpful throughout this process, giving me great tips on how to write a concise and thorough proposal.

As someone who has always been hugely interested in animals, and spent many years around horses, the opportunity to combine horse behaviour with psychological insights fascinated me. The main focus of my JRA was a study aiming to test domestic horses’ abilities to interpret, recall, and respond appropriately to human facial expressions. This type of research aims to investigate whether domestic horses’ have adapted advanced socio-cognitive skills that may have facilitated their integration among humans. We presented horses with either happy or angry photographs of a human face, then three hours later presented them with the actual person who had been previously shown in the picture. In the second phase, a heart rate monitor was used to record whether heart rate variability changed in response to the stimuli. This variable provided a more subtle response measure that is not accessible from observation alone.

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In these experiments I had the role of horse handler, which meant that I was responsible for positioning the horse correctly and using the heart rate watch to create laps, marking each stage of the test. It was great to be able to spend time around horses whilst simultaneously implementing experimental controls to produce a standardized procedure. Having worked on these trials I have been gained an awareness of how much time and effort it requires from multiple people just to make sure that everyone is in the right place at the right time with all the right equipment! This has been important to me as I am going on to complete my third year project with this group and now have a much better understanding of what kind of methods are feasible in the amount of time I have. The process also showed me that most of your time is eaten up, not by the data collection itself, but by the coding and analyzing of the data. From a two minute video clip of behavior it may take anywhere from an hour to three hours to code all the behaviours! With this in mind I can now plan my upcoming research to allow more than enough time for the coding, which is something I would not have considered had I not been doing it first hand.

The results of this study were very encouraging and contribute to a wider understanding of the horse-human relationship. Research such as this is important as it provides insight into the evolutionary history of communication mechanisms between horses and humans, but also looks at the universality of emotional expression and perception across species.

Throughout the JRA, and especially since the trials for the ‘Memory for Emotion’ study ended, I have been assisting with collection of social data as part of a wider project that the team is working on. This has been really enjoyable as we code horses’ natural behaviour in herds. To ensure we observe the horses with their whole social group we often need to arrive very early in the morning or stay late in the evening. It is a testament to those on the research team who have been collecting this data for a year already, as we are often out for hours in the rain watching intently for some interactions to take place! This kind of data collection has provided some of the highlights of my JRA experience, as the horses have so much character and have provided countless entertaining situations to observe. The hours of data collected comes with substantial computer work once you get back in the office (let’s just say my Excel skills have improved substantially over the last eight weeks!). Taking part in this type of data collection has taught me many key skills such as using a coding scheme, observation in the field, using tablets to collect data, editing the data in the office and finally processing it into a useful profile for each horse. As part of the scheme I was assigned a ‘mentor’ – Kate Grounds. She was invaluable throughout the whole process, spending hours teaching me all the mentioned skills both out in the field and in the office. It was great to feel so supported not only by Kate but also my supervisor Karen McComb and the other members of the team, Leanne Proops and Amy Smith.

Overall my time working with “Team Horse” has been not only beneficial for my future work but also incredibly fun. I would urge anyone who is interested in a research group to apply for a JRA as it can really improve your skills and open up new opportunities. I feel as though I am prepared for my third year project now as I have had a taste of how running an experiment works. Following on from my third year project research I would love to continue in this line of work, and being able to work alongside PhD and Masters students has been very encouraging.

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