You are in the zone. It was a tough course, but you made it through with a clean round. Your horse was brilliant, and carried you safely and carefully through all of those difficult lines. As your canter winds down, your adrenalin is pumping and the feeling of elation grows – yes, we really are getting somewhere! Your joy and appreciation expands to your equine partner. He definitely deserves a reward for his hard work.
- Give him extra carrots when he returns to his stall
- Repeat “good boy” in a lovely deep voice
- Pat him vigorously on the neck
- Slip him a couple of mints as soon as you dismount.
They all sound good right?
Not so fast. You could be doing just the wrong thing. Turns out one of those rewards is at best meaningless, and at worst it could be counter-productive. But good news, there is a simple solution and normal horse behavior provides the clue.
But first the answer to which is the wrong thing. It’s the third one, that big pat for a job well done. A new study being published this month is confirming that patting your horse – especially those big pats- could be sending the totally wrong message.
If you’re patting your horse you’re not alone. Even such esteemed organizations as the German National Equestrian Federation recommend patting the neck to reward or to soothe a horse. Top riders are no different. In an analysis of footage from the 2012 Olympics and the Grand Prix Special Dressage, researchers from the University of Nottingham found every single rider among the of 16 horse rider pairs they analyzed, patted their horses. Most (59%) patted on the right, and a significant number patted on both sides simultaneously (19%). 3 patted during the test, but most patted after the test ended, 12 kept patting for over 1 minute. The researchers also noted how the horses reacted -most sped up. A response that doesn’t seem to say, “Thanks for that, buddy.”
However, the reaction witnessed here doesn’t really reveal what the horses were thinking. We don’t know how vigorous or strong those pats were, and we don’t know if the horse is reacting to something else in the arena, like the audience cheering.
An international group of researchers, led by Zoë Thorbergson from Charles Sturt University in Australia, decided to investigate whether horses appreciate those congratulatory pats or not. They presented their results recently at the International Society for Equitation. They designed a rigorous study to decipher not only what the horse is really feeling but also whether there is a better way to reward and soothe your equine under saddle.
Looking at horse behavior, pats aren’t part of the horse-to-horse vocabulary – however horses often engage in mutual grooming. They run their teeth over each other’s withers in an action that seems to promote social bonding and is thought to be an expression of trust. Previous studies have shown that when horses are groomed and massaged in the withers area their heart rate goes down and they relax. Could a scratch on the withers be the proper reward for a job well done delivered in horse–appropriate language?
In Thorbergson’s study, 18 horses were ridden through a short obstacle course three times. After each round, the horses received one of three treatments. They were either patted for a minute on the right side of the neck in a “quick and gentle manner”, scratched for a minute on the withers at the base of the mane between the shoulder blades with a firm, raking motion, or were asked to stand with no interaction for the same period of time.
The researchers chose a minute because this is the average time mares’ groom each other in the wild. Heart rate, heart variability and behaviors were monitored.
The bottom line – horses scratched on the withers did show significantly more relaxed behaviors in comparison with the two other treatments. When scratched, horses lowered their heads below the withers with ears in a neutral position far longer and more frequently than when patted or left alone. In fact the horses that were patted were more likely to show agitated behavior, with ears back, tail swishing and reefing on the reins.
There were no significant changes seen in the heart rate and variability across treatments, although the researchers suspect there was not enough time for the equine physiology to respond.
As the horses in the study were unaccustomed to wither scratching under saddle the researchers believe even greater relaxation response could be possible with continued use.
Although further studies are needed, for lead author Zoë Thorbergson, their results were strong enough to make this recommendation: When you want to say good job – give your equine partner a scratch and save the pat on the back for you and your coach.