Do horses like being patted as a reward?

Written by Sunday, 06 September 2015 11:17

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!

Julie Moore

 

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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9 comments

  • Comment Link Scott Towner Wednesday, 18 October 2017 14:20 posted by Scott Towner

    Monty has been saying that for years.

  • Comment Link Julie Moore Wednesday, 07 December 2016 11:26 posted by Julie Moore

    Actually the research says that wither scratching is more relaxing so if you want a relaxed horse then this is better than patting. So it is good in situations when we want relaxation/learning. It doesn't actually say they hate being patted. I agree we should modify our bahaviours to suit our horses in different situations and they in turn do the same to live with us. They can read that certain responses from us show we are pleased with them and learn those indicators. So for instance after a jumping round when both of you have a bit of adrenalin up then I don't think a 'woohoo, good girl' accompanied by a hug round the neck and a few pats is necessarily a bad thing if they link it to a human response for doing well, because this situation doesn't necessarily call for relaxation. Adrenalin, isn't always a bad thing in either horse or human at the appropriate time. Horses in field will buck and play too and I'm sure their heart rate is

    Actually the research says that wither scratching is more relaxing so if you want a relaxed horse then this is better than patting. So it is good in situations when we want relaxation/learning. It doesn't actually say they hate being patted because they show a equal response to no action from the rider at all. I agree we should modify our bahaviours to suit our horses in different situations and they in turn do the same to live with us. They can read that certain responses from us show we are pleased with them and learn those indicators. So for instance after a jumping round when both of you have a bit of adrenalin up then I don't think a 'woohoo, good girl' accompanied by a hug round the neck and a few pats is necessarily a bad thing if they link it to a human response for doing well, because this situation doesn't necessarily call for relaxation. Adrenalin, isn't always a bad thing in either horse or human at the appropriate time. Horses in field will buck and play too and I'm sure their heart rate is up then, but doesn't necessarily mean they're not enjoying themselves.

  • Comment Link Katannuta  Brown Thursday, 12 May 2016 09:04 posted by Katannuta Brown

    Hmm, interesting. The research shows that horses prefera wither scratch and find pats and no interaction equally agitating - but you're still going to pat your horse? Why not change your behaviour to fit what your horse actually likes?

  • Comment Link Ellie Fells Wednesday, 27 April 2016 16:41 posted by Ellie Fells

    Ahh this is so interesting! I always used to stroke my horse when he got wound up as I found patting him made him stress more! xx

  • Comment Link sarah west Thursday, 17 September 2015 16:06 posted by sarah west

    Great post Julie!..earlier in the year I interacted with one of the very young foals (he could only have been a few weeks old) I was scratching his wither and immediately he started mutually grooming into the thin air. I wonder whether the response to the scratching of the whither indicates that it is a very primal/instinctive and therefore has an automatic soothing effect.

  • Comment Link Nicky Bethell Friday, 11 September 2015 17:05 posted by Nicky Bethell

    Yes, I do! I'd never thought about it before...

  • Comment Link Julie Moore Friday, 11 September 2015 07:05 posted by Julie Moore

    Thanks, and that's a really interesting point John, I know some horses get more temperamental when they're changing their coats so maybe it is because their skin becomes more sensitive. It's funny but thinking about it, I've always noticed when the seasons change my skin goes through a rough patch and then normalises again-does anyone else experience that?

  • Comment Link John B Wednesday, 09 September 2015 04:54 posted by John B

    Fab posting Jules....Some one once told me not to pat a horse when the seasons were changing and mid coat shedding as the 'skin is ultra sensitive'. Don't know whether it is right or not

  • Comment Link Abi Rule Monday, 07 September 2015 12:16 posted by Abi Rule

    Really great read Julie!!! I will be wither scratching from now on :-)