Patting or Scratching: Which do Horses Prefer?

I found this really interesting! Researchers at Nottingham University conducted a test into the benefits of patting horses as a positive reinforcement technique. It is a bit of a grey area amongst horse riders - we all do it to our horses when praising them ... but is it really beneficial?

In their study, five frequently handled riding school horses (average age of 13.4 years old) and five rarely handled rescue horses (average age of 10.4 years old) were patted or scratched for four 30-second intervals, each separated by 15 second breaks. The tests were replicated using a cross-over design. A control period consisted of the handler standing idle next to the horse.

All of the horses were fitted with a heart rate monitor and their behaviour was filmed for the duration of the experiment. The horse's heart rates did not differ between the treatments. However, the unhandled horses had an overall higher heart rate.

Interestingly, patting resulted in more ear movement whereas head lowering was more commonly associated with scratching of the withers.Wither scratching also resulted in mutual grooming and upper-lip movement, both of which were not observed when the horses were patted.
The study went on to look at the use of patting while a horse was being ridden. They assessed footage of 16 horse and rider pairs competing at the 2012 Olympic Games competing in dressage.They compared information on timing, the location of patting, and any behavioural reactions. Three riders interacted with their horses during the test and 15 patted their horse when they had completed their dressage test. Twelve of these riders patted their horses for over a minute.

A significant percentage of pats resulted in a reaction, most commonly acceleration. The riders patted more on the right side of the horse (59 percent) than the left (22 percent), or both sides simultaneously (19 percent).

The researchers went on to say that even though patting was commonly used during ridden work, it was wither scratching that invoked a positive behavioural reaction.“Wither scratching could potentially increase horse and human bonding and act as a more effective reward,” they said.

They concluded “We found that patting was less effective than wither scratching, with the latter resulting in responses similar to those found in positive horse on horse interaction. Riders and handlers should be encouraged to scratch rather than pat their horses as a reward.”

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