Your training is at its best when your horse is relaxed; you probably recognize this. When the horse is relaxed, it responds best to your aids and learns new exercises most easily. And if he is doing so well, of course you want to reward your horse. Many people do this by patting the horse on the neck. But they also often use the same pat to calm their horse when he spooked at something. A group of equine behavioral scientists from Australia and the United States wondered whether this actually helps.
The scientists noticed that there is no behaviour among horses that is comparable to patting the neck. That is why they doubted whether it is that effective. And whether a different approach might not be better to calm a horse. So they investigated how horses reacted to patting the neck, doing nothing, and scratching the withers after riding through an obstacle course.
Why scratching? When horses groom each other, either scratching with their lips or teeth and rubbing around the withers, for example, they both do this to groom each other’s coat and to strengthen their bond. When a person massages the same area firmly with their fingers, nails or a curry comb, horses react in the same way as in grooming with another horse. They then try to massage the person back, on their back or arm with their lips or teeth. Several studies found that scratching reduced the heart rate and increased relaxing behaviour in horses, which led the researchers to believe that this could be an alternative to patting.
During the study, experienced riders first guided 18 horses through an obstacle course, after which they were observed for one minute in the same spot in the arena. The riders either patted their horses during the observation time, or they scratched the area around the withers, or did nothing at all and just sat quietly in the saddle until the minute was over. Of course they always used the exact same place for the pats or the scratching and the force with which they did these was almost identical.
Interestingly, no difference in heart rate between the different treatments was measured. The researchers think this was because the test time was not optimal to measure a clear difference in heart rate. In terms of behaviour, however, there was a big difference. When scratched, horses clearly showed more relaxation and less agitated behaviour compared to patting or doing nothing. For example, they stood with their heads lowered for longer and kept their ears in a neutral position for longer.
It was also remarkable that the horses showed more agitated behaviour when patted, but also when nothing was done. They pinned their ears back and pulled on the reins. Furthermore, they were more likely to step forward when patted on the neck and swished their tail more. This indicates that they even found the patting annoying. When nothing was done, the horses moved their heads up and down restlessly, possibly because they received no signals at all from the rider during that minute.
The conclusion of this research seems clear, based on the behaviour the horses showed, it is better to scratch your horse on the withers than to pat him on the neck if you want to help him relax during your training.
Do you have the same experience with your horse? We would love to hear from you!
You can read the full study ‘Physiological and Behavioral Responses of Horses to Wither Scratching and Patting the Neck When Under Saddle’ by Zoë W. Thorbergson, Sharon G. Nielsen, Rodney J. Beaulieu and Rebecca E. Doyle here.