How do horses react to humans fearful of them?

Do horses behave differently around people feeling differing kinds of stress?
Do horses behave differently around people feeling differing kinds of stress?

Do humans fearful of horses invoke any kind of stress response or unsafe behavior in equines?

No, according to a study carried out by researchers at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, the findings of which have been published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

Katrina Merkies and her colleagues carried out an experiment to determine if horses could differentiate between a person who was fearful (psychologically stressed), another who had just exercised hard (physiologically stressed) and a calm individual who was comfortable around horses.

They said people may involuntarily emit fear or distress signals when around horses, and interpreting how horses responded was important, particularly for human safety around equines.

For the study, a total of 10 horses loose in a round pen were randomly subjected to the presence of a stationary blindfolded human in each of four treatments – the calm individual, the individual who had exercised to 70 percent of maximum heart rate and an individual frightened of horses. The fourth treatment was the control segment, in which no human was present in the round pen with the horses.

Both humans and horses wore a heart-rate monitor.

The researchers made physiological and behavioral observations of the horses, including the gait, head position relative to the withers, and their distance and orientation toward the human in the pen.

The researchers found that increasing human fearfulness was associated with a decrease in horse heart rate and the animals moved at a slower gait.

They found that the horses tended to have lower head carriage in the presence of the afraid individual and the individual who had exercised.

“Overall, horses appear less stressed in the presence of a stationary fearful or physically stressed human than a calm person,” the researchers wrote.

“Thus horses in the presence of fearful humans, particularly where participants may not be comfortable around horses, should not pose any additional risk provided normal safety precautions are employed.”

They believe it was the first study to determine if horses can differentiate between humans who were physiologically stressed from exercise as opposed to psychologically stressed from being afraid.

Preliminary results suggest an influence of psychological and physiological stress in humans on horse heart rate and behavior
Katrina Merkies, Anja Sievers, Emily Zakrajsek, Helen MacGregor, Renée Bergeron, Uta König von Borstel.
Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research

The abstract can be read here.

4 thoughts on “How do horses react to humans fearful of them?

  • June 16, 2014 at 3:40 am

    Nonsense. 40 years of horse ownership tells me different. Seeing the reactions of my horses to two different family members that were afraid of them trumps some stupid heart monitor BS.

    • October 13, 2015 at 11:23 am

      Yeah, I tend to agree. If a horse senses you’re kind and calm, it will pick up on that. However, some horses are great for nervous kids–they seem to understand a child’s anxiety. Conversely, some dogs and cats may not respond well to nervous kids (then again, some do). Animals can definitely pick up on your “energy.” Horses are no exception.

  • June 16, 2014 at 11:18 am

    I think this study is claiming that low headset, a decrease in gait, and a decreased heart rate = less stress in the horse. I ask do you really understand horses? I think not, horses lower their heads to investigate not only to relax; horses may also become still when investigating; horses heart rates may in fact go down when investigating. Now when a horse is investigating = skepticism not relaxation. Skepticism can in turn result in unpredictable outcomes. Conclusion this study was conducted with poor outcome indicators = bad science here folks.

  • July 4, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    Why were the humans blindfolded? The people were stationery in the round pen – very different from a nervous, scared or anxious person interacting with a horse!


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