Do horses prefer a friendly pat or a scratch?

Daniel Deusser and Cornet d’Amour
Daniel Deusser and Cornet d’Amour. A pat may not be all it’s cracked up to be in the eyes of a horse. © Paul Harding / Lewis Harding Photography

Horses love tasty treats from their riders and handlers, but what do they think of patting and scratching?

British researchers presented findings at the recent International Equitation Science Conference in Denmark that a scratch on the wither was more effective as a reward than a pat.

Nottingham Trent University researchers Emily Hancock, Sarah Redgate and Carol Hall said patting horses as a positive reinforcer was poorly researched and its origins were unclear, despite being commonplace in equestrian culture.

“Anecdotal evidence and opinion suggest that patting is meaningless or even aversive to the horse,” they told delegates.

Daniel-Deusser-foal-winnerThe trio set out to investigate the frequency of patting and its effect in a ridden situation, and the effect of patting and wither scratching in a handling situation.

In the study, five frequently handled riding school horses with an average age of 13.4 and five infrequently handled rescue horses with an average age of 10.4 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 next to the horse.

Horses were fitted with a polar heart rate monitor and their behaviour was filmed for the duration of the test.

Heart rate did not differ between treatments, but the unhandled horses had a higher overall heart rate and spent more time alert overall.

For both groups, behavioural reactions did not differ significantly from control.

Patting resulted in more ear movement whereas head lowering was more commonly associated with scratching.

Wither scratching also introduced new types of behaviour, mutual grooming and upper-lip movement, which were not observed during control or patting treatment.

Hancock and her colleagues, as part of their study, also looked at the use of patting in a ridden situation, assessed footage of 16 horse-rider pairs at the 2012 London Olympics Games competing in dressage.

They collated information on timing, location of patting, and subsequent behavioural reactions.

Three riders interacted with their horses during the test and 15 patted their horse on test completion, with 12 continuing patting for over a minute.

A significant percentage of pats resulted in a reaction, most commonly acceleration.

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 said their preliminary study indicated that, although patting was frequently used during ridden work, more positive behavioural responses were associated with wither scratching.

“Wither scratching could potentially increase horse/human bonding and act as a more effective reward,” they said.

Their results, they said, warranted further investigation with larger sample sizes.

The trio concluded: “We found that patting was less effective than wither scratching, with the latter resulting in responses similar to those found in positive horse-horse interaction.

“Riders and handlers should be encouraged to scratch rather than pat their horses as a reward.”


One thought on “Do horses prefer a friendly pat or a scratch?

  • February 15, 2015 at 3:34 am

    Absolute rubbish! They’re comparing (and confusing) a loving gesture with a congratulatory or appreciative gesture. These horses know the difference. The theories of emotion, feelings and psychology aren’t well understood in humans let alone horses.

    In her study, Hancock and her fellow researchers observed 16 horse/rider combinations in the Grand Prix Special dressage test of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Overall, pats dominated any other type of non-aid contact: Riders issued 350 pats throughout the Grand Prix competition and only three strokes.

    Of the 16 riders, 15 patted their horses when they finished the test.

    It would take more time than I’m willing to invest right now to explain in depth but suffice to say that if 15 out of 16 riders at the Olympic Games patted rather than scratched or stroked their mounts then one should take notice!

    These riders have spent a lifetime understanding their horses to reach the pinnacle of equine competition and I suggest you trust their judgement as opposed to someone claiming to make a science of feelings, emotions and reactions in an animal species.

    I have been riding professionally at the highest levels for 43 years and I would be one of the 15 riders patting. The rider that was stroking probably did not finish well and was telling their horse “I love you anyway!”

    Basically, the entire study was flawed based on the faulty premise that horses do not understand the difference.

    I cannot in good conscience give you a “pat on the back” for this article; however I’ll stroke your back because it’s ok, I love you anyway.

    Do you understand?


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