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Katrina Merkies

Position/Title: Associate Professor
Phone: (519) 824-4120 ext. 54707
Office: ANNU 249

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Meet Katrina ( 60 second OAC video )

Dr Merkies is the faculty advisor for the Bachelor of Bio-Resource Management degree program in Equine Management. She also teaches courses in equine management, event management, equine reproduction and integrated projects. She manages a small research program involving equine behaviour, welfare, management mainly focused on the horse-human relationship especially in equine-assisted activities.

BSc(Agr) - University of Guelph, 1994

PhD - University of Guelph, 1998


International Society of Equitation Science [president and trustee]

International Society of Applied Ethology

Equine Science Society


Current Graduate Students

Amir Sarrafchi - PhD Candidate. Thesis - Effect of touch in human-animal interactions

Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI) are proven to mitigate stress, anxiety and depression in humans. Most AAI programs involve touching and handling the animal which likely contributes to these positive effects. However, awareness of how the animal views this tactile interaction is lacking. This uninformed approach may undermine the effectiveness of the activity and the animal’s felt sense of safety. This study will demonstrate the effect of consensual vs. non-consensual touch interactions on horses and dogs. By spotlighting this, AAI facilitators can become more aware of stress-induced behaviours in horses and adjust their activities to reduce or eliminate these scenarios. In doing so, the well-being of the horses is prioritized and the clients will also derive greater benefit and satisfaction from the encounters. 

Caleigh Copelin - MSc student. Thesis - Welfare and best practices for lesson horses

In 2010 over $400 million was spent on riding lessons in Canada with a growing demand. Over 10,000 lesson horses are in use in Ontario. Despite playing a key role, lesson horses are often subject to poor welfare conditions such as overuse, improperly fitted equipment and inadequate turnout. This impacts their mental and physical well-being with downstream financial, health and social consequences for both horses and humans.
A survey of management practices will be followed by live observations of lesson horse facilities to examine the influence of management practices on stress-related behaviours during riding lessons. Lesson horses are the foundation of all areas of the horse industry and play a key role in human physical and mental health. Understanding the current state of active equid welfare in Canada can direct targeted educational efforts to ensure sustainability of this sector.

Recent Past Graduate Students

Katy Trudel - MSc. Major Project - Human recognition of consensual touch in horses

How well do you understand your animal? Have you noticed when they want to be around you? Or when they need a break? We would like to test human ability to understand what horses in particular are trying to tell us. Interacting with animals is a positive experience for most – think of how exciting it is to see your horse greet you at the pasture gate. What still needs to be investigated is if horses enjoy these activities as much as we do and if they want to be participating. An online survey will help us to determine how well humans can identify consensual and non-consensual touch interactions between a human and a horse. It will also evaluate how personal introspection contributes to an innate ability to categorize these interactions.

Olivia Franzin - MSc. Major Project - Why the heck is my horse erect?

Clicker trainers have noticed a greater frequency of penile tumescence (dropping) occurring when working with stallions and geldings than conventional trainers. Dropping is considered to be problematic by some trainers, indicating aggression and dominance, while other trainers feel it is a sign of relaxation. There is no current research investigating this phenomenon. This study will gather information in the form of a survey to determine how widespread this phenomenon is, how trainers view it, how they address it, and if there is any relationship with training style. Video submissions of training sessions while horses are dropped will examine latency, frequency and duration of dropping along with any behavioural and environmental cues.

Daniela Hayman - MSc Major Project - The usefulness of blindfolding horses as a handling method

Blindfolds are considered a useful tool by some managers to assist in the handling of horses that are difficult to control. For instance, blindfolds are routinely used for loading racehorses into the starting gate prior to the start of a race, or for loading nervous horses onto a trailer for transport. In the event of a barn fire, a blindfold is commonly recommended to make the horse more willing to follow the handler out of the barn. During a fire, the horse may have only 30 seconds to escape, thus precious seconds cannot be wasted in trying to coerce the horse to follow the handler. The blindfold prevents the horse from seeing the frightening situation with the belief that this improves their willingness to follow the handler. If horses protest to having a blindfold placed on their face, then an experienced handler may be able to deal with this situation better than someone with little experience in handling horses. However, in a fire situation, firefighters are often inexperienced in handling horses. Examining the ease of handling a blindfolded horse in various conditions can assist in determining the optimal handling response to stressful situations. This can affect the safety of both the handler and the horse, and can lead to an improvement in horse welfare by reducing the amount of fear and distress that the horse experiences.

Abby Hodder - MSc. Major Project - Can horses distinguish between human facial expressions

In humans, successful social interactions rely on recognition and interpretation of facial expressions. Research on facial expression recognition between humans and non-human animals is sparse but dogs have been shown to discriminate between photographs of neutral and smiling faces, with more success in humans of the same gender as their owner. Horses showed avoidance behaviours when presented with photographs of humans exhibiting negative facial expressions and were able to pair previous exposure to a smiling photograph with more positive interactions when meeting that person. Horses also appeared to recognize incongruency when a smiling human face was paired with an angry voice. There have been no controlled studies exploring the reaction of horses to live human facial expressions. This research will document the response of horses exposes to happy, sad, angry and neutral facial expressions in human subjects.

Cordelie Dubois - PhD. Thesis - The development of an equine welfare assessment tool

With diversity in equine disciplines ranging from hunter/jumper to racing to rodeo and pleasure riding, standards of care and management of the horse are difficult to articulate. The basic physiology of the horse, however, does not change irrespective of its function. A compendium of specific measures (animal-, management- and resource-based) that can accurately assess a horse’s level of welfare regardless of its environment is essential. This research seeks to develop a Canadian-based equine welfare assessment model which will augment implementation of the National Farm Animal Care Council’s (NFACC) Equine Code of Practice, enhance transparency, facilitate awareness, and provide legitimacy and credibility to participating equine facilities. Concomitantly, a validated training program for equine welfare evaluators will be developed to standardize the delivery and implementation of appropriate welfare assessment measures across a range of equestrian facilities and activities.

Haley Belliveau - MSc. Major Project - Human discrimination of horse vocalizations

Horses are social creatures relying on various stimuli to interact with others around them. Typically, horses are thought of as visual animals; however, they also rely on vocalizations to convey various messages. Vocalizations usually occur within two contexts – social and non-social. The social context is indicative of greeting, locating, courting, mare-foal interaction, and aggressive behaviours. There are also non-social situations in which horses will vocalize. These include pain, fear, and frustration responses. Whinnying is a vocalization exhibited by horses in a variety of situations. Whinnying is used as both and greeting and separation call to maintain and regain contact with other herd members. Whinnies have also been acoustically examined in eustress and distress situations. Eustress and distress are two fundamentally different states of being where eustress is a positive, or exciting stress and distress is a negative stress or event. There are defined bioacoustic differences between a whinny generated in eustress compared to a whinny generated in distress. Humans, including children and sightless adults, have demonstrated the ability to correctly classify dog barks that are generated in various contexts. This ability may translate over to another companion animal - the horse. This research is aimed to investigate whether humans can accurately distinguish between positive and negative horse vocalizations, particularly whinnies generated in a variety of situations

Lindsay Nakonechny - MSc. Major Project - An industry view of prevalence and perception of horse welfare in Canada

In today’s western society where “animal welfare” is a heightened objective, of great concern is a horse owner's apparent inability to properly assess welfare problems. Horse owners routinely underestimate the prevalence of their animals' stereotypic and abnormal behaviours, especially on farms where the greatest number of animals performed unwanted behaviours. Owners often continue to use horses unfit for riding in light lessons (walk and trot), despite veterinary advice to the contrary, perhaps because they do not consider the state of their animals a pressing welfare concern. This may be related to the juxtaposition found in clinical practitioners who claim to be able to recognize equine suffering but can provide no clinical definition. An industry questionnaire circulated in the Netherlands indicates that almost 65% of horse enthusiasts believe there are welfare issues in the industry, however their beliefs do not always result in best welfare practices; for example, almost 75% of respondents believe that horses prefer social housing, but over 60% of these people house their horses individually. As a first step in developing a standard of equine welfare, the perception and understanding of welfare issues in the Canadian horse industry needs to be established.

Selected Referreed Publications

  1. Merkies K, Franzin O. 2023. “Dropping” in male horses during training: Part 1. Perceptions from horse trainers. Appl Anim Behav Sci, 261, 105896–105896.  
  2. Merkies K, de Zwaan N, Franzin O. 2023. “Dropping” in male horses during training: Part 2. Video observations. Appl Anim Behav Sci, 260, 105875-105875.  
  3. Ross M, Proudfoot K, Merkies K, Elsohaby I, Mills M, Macmillan K, Mckenna S, Ritter C. 2023. Horse Housing on Prince Edward Island, Canada: Attitudes and Experiences Related to Keeping Horses Outdoors and in Groups. Animals 13:275.  
  4. Merkies K, Copelin C, Small N, Young J. 2022. Noseband Fit: Measurements and Perceptions of Canadian Equestrians. Animals 12:2685.
  5. Merkies K, Sudarenko Y, Hodder A. 2022. Can horses distinguish between differing human facial expressions. Animals 12:2331.
  6. Merkies K, Copelin C, McPhedran C, McGreevy P. 2022. The presence of various tack and equipment in sale horse advertisements. J Vet Behav 55-56:63-70.
  7. Sarrafchi A, David-Steel M, Pearce SD, de Zwaan N, Merkies K. 2022. Effect of human-dog interaction on therapy dog stress during an on-campus student stress buster event. Appl Anim Behav Sci 253: 105659.
  8. Merkies K, Belliveau H. 2021. Human ability to determine affective states in domestic horse whinnies. Anthrozoös 
  9. Merkies K, Franzin O. 2021. Enhanced understanding of horse-human interactions to optimize welfare. Animals 11:1347.
  10. Merkies K, Copelin C, Crouchman E, St-Onge A. 2020. The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on riding lesson barns and summer camps in Ontario. Animals 10(12):2412.
  11. Arrazola A, Merkies K. 2020. Effect of Human Attachment Style on Horse Behaviour and Physiology during Equine-Assisted Activities–A Pilot Study. Animals 10, 1156.
  12. Merkies K, Paraschou G, McGreevy PD. 2020. Morphometric Characteristics of the Skull in Horses and Donkeys—A Pilot Study. Animals 10, 1002.
  13. Merkies K, Alebrand J, Harwood B, LaBarge K, Scott L. 2020. Investigation into thoracic asymmetry in ridden horses. Comparative Exercise Physiol Special Issue, 16(1):55-62.  
  14. DuBois C, Nakonechny L, Derisoud E, Merkies K. 2018. Examining Canadian Equine Industry Participants’ Perceptions of Horses and Their Welfare. Animals, 8, 201. 
  15. Merkies K, McKechnie MJ, Zakrajsek E. 2018. Behavioural and physiological responses of therapy horses to mentally traumatized humans. Appl Anim Behav Sci 
  16. DuBois C, DeVries T, Haley DB, Lawlis P, Merkies K. 2018. Putting an On-Farm Welfare Assessment Tool into Practice in the Canadian Equine Industry – A Pilot Study. J Eq Vet Sci 63:35-40
  17. Merkies K, Nakonechny L, DuBois C, Derisoud E. 2018. Preliminary study on current perceptions and usage of training equipment by horse enthusiasts in Canada. J Appl Anim Welf Sci, 21:141-152,  
  18. Merkies K, Sievers A, Zakrajsek E, MacGregor H, Bergeron B, König von Borstel U. 2014. Influence of psychological and physiological arousal in humans on horse heart rate and behaviour. J Vet Behav 9 (2014) 242-247
  19. von Borstel UU, Duncan IJH, Shoveller AK, Merkies K, Keeling LJ, Millman ST. 2009. Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkür-posture on welfare and fear of performance horses. App Anim Beh Sci;116:228-236

Recent Conference Presentations

  1. Trudel K, Merkies K. Human ability to classify horse affective states depicted in media via an online survey. 32nd Conference of the International Society for Anthrozoology. June 2023
  2. Merkies K, Copelin C, Small N, Young J. Noseband Fit: Measurements and Perceptions of Canadian Equestrians. International Society for Equitation Science annual conference, Hartpury, UK. Aug 2022
  3. Merkies K, Franzin O. Why the heck is my horse erect? The investigation of dropping behavior in male horses during training. International Society for Anthrozoology, Virtual. July 2022
  4. Sarrafchi A, David-Steel M, Pearce SD, de Zwaan N, Merkies K. 2022. Effect of human-dog interaction on therapy dog stress during an on-campus student stress buster event. Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) Annual Research Symposium. Guelph, ON, May 2022
  5. Merkies K, Hayman D. The usefulness of blindfolding horses as a handling method. International Society for Equitation Science, Virtual. Oct 2021
  6. Franzin O, Merkies K. Why the heck is my horse erect? The investigation of dropping behavior in male horses during training. International Society for Equitation Science, Virtual. Oct 2021
  7. Merkies K, Zakrajsek E. Using equine behaviour to improve human safety. Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians virtual Annual Conference. March 2021
  8. Merkies K. Welfare of horses in equine-assisted programs. CAFRE Equine Welfare Conference, Enniskillen, Ireland. March 2021.
  9. Merkies K. A match made in heaven: the road to horse and human well-being. International Society for Equitation Science virtual summer meeting. August 2020
  10. Hodder A, Merkies K. Can Ponies (Equus caballus) Distinguish Human Facial Expressions? Animal Behaviour Science Virtual Conference. July 2020
  11. Alebrand J, Harwood B, LaBarge K, Scott L, Merkies K. 2018. Investigation into thoracic asymmetry in ridden horses. 14th International Society for Equitation Science, Rome, Italy, Sept 2018 
  12. Pearce S, Niel L, Merkies K. Can humans distinguish stress behaviours in dogs? Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare (CCSAW) Annual Research Symposium. Guelph, ON, May 2018

last updated July 2023