Horse-riding simulator simply can’t match the real deal, study findings suggest

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Riding simulators can provide a similar physical load to horses but cannot completely replace the real thing since they cannot induce the same emotional experience, the findings of research suggest.

Scientists from Spain, Chile and Portugal set out to compare whether horseback riding and simulator use produced different results in the way the heart reacted.

For their experiment, they used 23 healthy young adults with an average age of 22.9.

Their fear of horse-riding was assessed beforehand, and was found to average 1.65 on a scale in which 10 indicated the maximum fear possible.

Each participant rode a horse for five minutes at walking speed and then spent five minutes on a horse gait simulator, while heart-rate parameters were recorded.

Immediately after each riding phase, heart-rate variability at rest was also recorded to observe the acute effects.

Santos Villafaina
Santos Villafaina

Santos Villafaina and his colleagues, writing in the journal Applied Sciences, found that heart rate was higher when the subjects rode on the horse compared with the simulator.

However, heart-rate variability was lower when participants were riding the horse compared with the simulator.

No differences were observed immediately after the two protocols.

The authors concluded that the sympathetic tone is higher while riding a real horse when compared to riding a horse simulator. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for preparing the body for intense physical activity and is often called the fight-or-flight response.

“These differences may be due to emotional aspects and not due to differences in the physical load, considering the absence of differences in the acute effects,” they reported.

“We can state that although a riding simulator can provide a similar physical load to horse movement, this type of equipment could not completely replace a horse, since they cannot induce similar emotions compared with real animals.

“Also, the simulator only oscillates in a programmed pattern, while a real horse, as a living being, provides a complex oscillation to the rider.”

They said future studies should consider increasing recording time by a few hours in order to identify the point at which sympathetic and parasympathetic activity change after exercise performance, as well as the role of emotions in this type of activity.

“In this line, future studies should examine the emotional experience of the participants during both simulator and horseback riding conditions.”

The authors noted that previous studies had examined the role of animals in therapy and education, indicating the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, or the motivating effect caused by an animal in the educational environment.

Simulators have also been shown to have positive effects as horseback-riding substitutes, promoting therapeutic benefits associated with postural control and muscle strength, including low cost, as well as greater safety and accessibility.

“However, mental or psychological effects appear to be more limited in simulators compared to animal-assisted therapies.”

The researchers said their study supports the absence of psychological benefits with the simulator since the physiological response seemed to be different despite the similar physical load.

“This result could indicate the importance of emotions during the performance of physical activities.”

The study team acknowledged their study had some limitations. For one, they had used only healthy young adults, which limited the possibility of applying the results to other pathological or special populations.

“Second, no emotional questionnaire was given to participants, which may limit the interpretation of the HRV parameters.

The full study team comprised Villafaina, Carmen Cordón-González, Daniel Collado-Mateo, Juan Fuentes-García, J.C. Adsuar, E. Merellano-Navarro and J.A. Parraca.

They are variously affiliated with the University of Extremadura in Spain, the Universidad Autónoma de Chile, and the Universidade de Évora in Portugal.

Influence of Horseback Riding and Horse Simulator Riding on Heart Rate Variability: Are There Differences?
Santos Villafaina, Carmen Cordón-González, Daniel Collado-Mateo, Juan Fuentes-García, J.C. Adsuar, E. Merellano-Navarro and J.A. Parraca
Appl. Sci. 2019, 9(11), 2194;

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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2 thoughts on “Horse-riding simulator simply can’t match the real deal, study findings suggest

  • June 11, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    I pioneered the teaching of riding with simulators, over 20 years ago, and have taught literally thousands of riders on them since, at home and internationally. I use them purely to show the rider the precise use of lower back and pelvis in order to be able to synchronise their own movement with that of the horse, to produce a quietly adhesive, classical seat that is independent of the reins. The machines were never designed to replace horses, but to save horses the discomfort of beginner and novice riders bouncing on their backs, and to allow ‘hands on’ correction of long standing rider problems in established riders.

    They are absolutely invaluable for this purpose, as a teaching and remedial tool. But for equine assisted therapy, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that an inanimate machine, will not give the vital feedback that a real horse can!!

  • July 31, 2019 at 9:06 am

    Simulators are also excellent for more advanced riders to practice Alexander technique, for example, and to check, improve awareness and adjust small positional details. They can therefore be used as a complement to being lunged on a horse.


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