Study: Horses Not Stressed by Inexperienced Riders

Study: Horses Not Stressed by Inexperienced Riders

New research indicates horses' stress levels do not appear to change from one rider to another—whether those riders be stressed or unstressed, experienced or novice.


Imagine the scenario: A relatively inexperienced rider climbs aboard an inexperienced, young horse and pilots him around his first ever jump course in an arena. Recipe for major stress, right? For the rider, yes, say German equitation scientists. But for the horse, probably not.

According to new research at the Graf Lehndorff Institute for Equine Science in Neustadt, Germany, inexperienced horses do not show more physiological signs of stress than experienced horses when working a new jumping course for the first time. In fact, their stress level doesn’t even change from one rider to another—whether those riders be stressed or unstressed, experienced or novice.

“For the horses, it seemed to be all the same,” said Mareike von Lewinski, DVM, PhD, primary researcher in the study. “Experience had no effect on their stress levels in the jumping arena and neither did the experience of the rider.”

The same could not be said of the riders, however. Inexperienced riders were significantly more stressed than experienced riders, and that stress was greater when they were riding inexperienced horses.

In their study, von Lewinski and colleagues investigated 16 German sport horses and 16 riders in a jumping pattern of seven jumps (at a maximum height of 97 centimeters, or 38 inches). Half the horses had participated in advanced-level show jumping competitions; the other half had just completed basic training and had never completed a full jumping course. The riders themselves were divided into groups of either high-level professional riders or amateur riding students. (All riders had sufficient experience to safely ride the horses over jumps, von Lewinski added.)

Each rider rode an experienced horse and an inexperienced horse over the jumping course, and each horse was ridden by an experienced and inexperienced rider. The researchers evaluated both horses' and riders' salivary cortisol ("stress hormone") levels and heart rates before and immediately after the course. They also measured heart rates during the jumping round.

“The stress response of the horses was not affected by the level of experience of their riders and, in particular, not increased when the horses were ridden by less experienced riders,” von Lewinski said. “But for the riders, both their own experience and that of their equine partner influenced their stress response.”

As von Lewinksi determined in an earlier study on the stress of horses and riders in front of an audience, riders do not appear to transfer their own stress to their horses.

“Riders might sometimes feel that their horses are picking up on their own stress, but they should be reassured that this is not the case,” she said.

Nonetheless, riders could unintentionally ride differently when they are stressed, which could consequently cause the horse to react in ways that it otherwise would not, she added. However, her group has not studied such effects yet.

The institute’s research on horse-rider interactions is ongoing, she said.

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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