Study finds no signs of stage fright in horses

Taking a saliva sample from a performing horse at Saumur.
Taking a saliva sample from a performing horse at Saumur. © Vetmeduni Vienna/J. Aurich

Horses do not suffer from stage fright in front of an audience, according to Austrian research, but their riders most certainly do.

A tear-jerking moment as Albert says goodbye to Joey.
A tear-jerking moment as Albert says goodbye to Joey in War Horse.

The researchers set about determining whether the familiar signs of stage fright, with all its nasty manifestations such as rapid pulse, dry mouth, shaky voice, blushing and sweaty palms, affected horses.

Was the condition restricted to humans, they wondered? How do animals react to the presence of human audiences?

Professor Christine Aurich and her team at the University of Veterinary Medicine, in Vienna, tackled the questions.

Their research confirms that horse riders suffer more stress when performing in front of an audience than when practising for the event, but show that the horses themselves react identically whether or not spectators are present.

The horses and their riders thus perceive the challenges of competing in equestrian events differently, the scientists concluded.

The study’s findings have just been published online in the “Veterinary Journal”.

It is well known that horses show signs of stress when ridden, but little attention has been paid to the effects on their riders. That was surprising, the researchers said, given that equestrian sports relied on the close co-operation between the animals and their riders.

The research was undertaken  by Mareike von Lewinski in Aurich’s group, together with colleagues at the university and at the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation in Saumur, France.

The scientists measured the changes in various stress-related parameters, such as the level of stress hormones in saliva and the regularity of the pulse, in horses and their riders when the animals were ridden in a particular show programme.

The measurements were taken both when the presentation was completed in front of about a thousand spectators and when the riders practised beforehand without any spectators.

Horses in the study showed no signs of stress over performing in front of an audience.
Horses in the study showed no signs of stress over performing in front of an audience. © Vetmeduni Vienna/J. Aurich

The results were compared to assess how the riders and their mounts responded to the presence of the audience.

In line with previous experiments, the researchers could observe symptoms of stress – higher cortisol concentrations in the saliva and more irregular heartbeats – both in horses and in their riders during the study.

But the riders showed significantly higher levels of stress when an audience was present, confirming what was suspected – participation in equestrian events is associated with stage fright, even in experienced riders.

There are many reasons why riders might be more stressed when performing in front of an audience than when practising. As Aurich says: “They are only human, after all.”

In contrast, the horses appeared not to be affected by the presence of spectators: their reaction to the course was essentially independent of whether an audience was present or not.

In other words, the horses and their riders respond differently to the challenges posed by performing for spectators, with the horses not suffering from the increased levels of stress shown by their riders.

The results imply that the riders do not communicate their heightened anxiety to the animals.

The lack of transfer of emotions between rider and horse was completely unexpected.

Aurich concedes: “We started with the assumption that the rider’s stress would affect his horse but this does not seem to be the case.

“Nevertheless, we should bear in mind that we were working with experienced horses and highly skilled riders: our findings cannot be generalized to inexperienced riders, who might be less able to prevent their horses from being stressed by the situation.”

The research was carried out at the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science, a joint research unit of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, and the Brandenburg State Stud at Neustadt (Dosse), Germany, and at the Ecole nationale d`équitation in Saumur, France


The paper is entitled “Cortisol release, heart rate and heart rate variability in the horse and its rider: Different responses to training and performance”. It is written by Mareike von Lewinski, Sophie Biau, Regina Erber, Natascha Ille, Jörg Aurich, Jean-Michel Faure, Erich Möstl and Christine Aurich.

It has just been published online in the “Veterinary Journal”. The abstract of the original article online can be found here.


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