WTF!! was my reaction when I read a year or so ago that some people think that it's cruel to pat a horse. They reason that because horses don't pat each other, it's unnatural to them so, we shouldn't either. Well hey, horses don't go riding around on each others backs either do they -well not most of the time- and we still do that. Oops sorry, I forgot, some people think it's cruel to even ride horses! Anyway, I digress.
Many of us reward our horses when we're pleased with them by patting them, usually on the neck, sometimes more energetically than others-occasionally accompanied by a 'woohoo!!' depending on the level of the task we've both completed. I tend to think they pick up on the positive energy and associate it with patting, in a sort of 'well if it makes her happy. then it makes me happy' kind of way.
But I tend to use patting when I've finished riding and when I'm actually in the process of riding and want to reward my horse for doing something difficult I usually lower my hand and give them a gentle wither scratch which I think is less disruptive to the rein contact and more relaxing. However, some trainers would say even that disrupts a steady contact and you are better to simply press your hand against the neck.
Anyways, now some researchers have actually put patting vs scratching to the test. The aim was to discover which method a horse finds more relaxing whilst under saddle because it is generally assumed that relaxation in the horse is a necessary ingredient for both learning and efficient movement. So, they rode eighteen horses and monitored their response to wither scratching, patting, and no interaction at all. Each horse was ridden through a short obstacle course and then one of these three methods was randomly applied for a minute. The horse was then ridden through the course twice more and each of the remaining methods was applied. Horses were monitored for heart Rate, heart rate variability and behavioural postures of ear, leg, tail, head and mouth movements.
Maybe it's not much of a surprise to read that their research revealed that wither scratching, which we know horses do when mutually grooming each other, produced a significantly longer duration of relaxation than the other two treatments and they concluded that wither scratching for a one minute period may help to increase relaxation when the horse is standing under saddle.
But what I find very interesting, is their discovery that these horses displayed a similar number of agitated behaviours during both neck patting and no interaction at all.
So, if you want to keep your horse relaxed then it looks like wither scratching is the best reward. But, I think I'm still going to give my horse a good pat when I want us both to do a little victory dance around the arena and at least it's only as equally agitating for a horse as doing nothing at all!
For more info on this research go to p.36 of http://www.equitationscience.com/documents/Conferences/2015/ISES_Conference_Proceedings_2015.pdf
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