On Mythbuster Monday, we tackle a variety of equestrian myths to either bust or confirm. Today’s discussion: Do horses like being patted?
It’s Mythbuster Monday, where Horse Nation dives into different equestrian myths and provides research-based evidence to either bust or confirm those myths. Today’s topic: Do horses like being patted? Do they prefer to be petted? Do they associate it with reward? Does it trigger their fight for flight response? Read further to find out!
Myth: Horses don’t like being patted
Myth or Fact: Both
Often times, after a great performance in the ring, we observe riders enthusiastically patting their horses on the neck as a job well done. Does the horse consider this a reward as the rider intends it to be or does it cause the horse discomfort?
An article provided by Equine Behaviourist states that a study was performed on five riding school ponies and five relatively untouched rescue horses. Patting resulted in little behavioral reaction. Petting had a positive reaction of horses lowering their heads and moving their upper lips.
This article also discusses another study that showed that scratching around the wither area consistently lowered a horse’s heart rate. The article stated that this method may be extremely effective for the horses that finish their performance and come out of the ring highly responsive and alert.
An article by Equivet Breeding Centre discussed research done by Nottingham Trent University. This study observed 16 horse/rider combinations at the Grand Prix Special Dressage test of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. During this event, these riders issued 350 pats and only three scratches. Twelve riders were observed patting their horse for over one minute. As a result, only 34% of the times being pat did a horse show a negative reaction of undesirable behavior or increased pace. Researchers noted that the increase in pace could have been due to the rider leaning forward to pat the horse and not the actual pat itself.
Charles Sturt University asserts that horses have not evolved to finding pats rewarding. In their article they remind us about the natural behavior of horses. In the wild or when communicating with other horses in the pasture, they scratch against each other or lightly nibble to bond with other horses. They weren’t saying that patting had a negative effect on all horses, however it never had more of a positive reaction as petting and scratching.
An article by Horse and Hound discusses the training process of the horse. Most trainers utilize positive reinforcement to adequately train horses. The horse associates behaviors, such as patting, as a break from work and positive reinforcement. When creating this association, they create a positive reaction to the gesture of patting.
Passionate Horsemanship also provides an interesting perspective to this topic in their article. They differentiate between patting and slapping a horse. If gently patting the horse does not find the gesture offensive. A training story was provided of a stallion who preferred patting as his way of being rewarded. This was the most effective way for the trainer to make progress with haltering the horse. The stallion would make progress in training if his reward was being patted on the neck over petting and other reward type options.
After diving into the research, the most important takeaway is to know your horse and what makes him respond positively and negatively. Some horses react negatively to patting while others prefer the method. Many horses begin to associate the gesture in a positive manner because it is often used as a positive reinforcement measure during the training process. However, petting is proven to be more understood by horses and can decrease a horse’s heart rate.
Do you have an equine myth you’d like us to tackle? If so, send it our way! Email your suggestions to [email protected]. Put Mythbuster Monday in your subject line.