Rider and Handler Effect on Horse Behavior

Rider and Handler Effect on Horse Behavior

"The present study shows that a rider or handler influences, but not completely masks, the horses' innate behavior in a temperament test," concluded the team.

Photo: The Horse Staff

A horse's temperament results from a combination of genetics and handling from a young age, but how much influence does a rider or handler have on a horse's behavior? According to a recent study led by Uta Konig von Borste, PhD, professor at the University of Goettingen in Germany, riders and handlers might have a considerable effect on a horse's behavior, especially in fearful situations.

Using a temperament test, Konig's research team evaluated 65 Hanoverian riding horses to compare the horses' heart rate and behavior as they encountered three different fear-inducing stimuli (visual, visual/tactile, visual/auditory) while being ridden, led, and running free. Horses were ridden and led by either professional or experienced amateur riders, and the team compared reactions of horses ridden and handled by both rider groups as well.

During each horse's encounter with a stimulus researchers measured the following variables using a visual analog scale (0-10, with 10 being a maximum reaction) with the minimum and maximum scores being precisely defined: horse's activity, emotional expression, reactivity, time to calm down, and rider's intensity of cueing the horse. Horses were also equipped with monitors to measure changes in heart rate during each part of the test.

Some key findings in the study include:

  • Riding was linked with the strongest or medium reactions from horses, while leading was linked with the weakest reactions;
  • Rider level influenced the horses' emotional expressions; horses ridden by professionals earned lower scores (showing less reaction) than those ridden by amateurs; and
  • Horses' heart rate and behavior did not always coincide (i.e., the horse could appear calm but still have an elevated heart rate), leading researchers to believe that riders or handlers might have more influence over the horse's behavior than his physiological reaction.

"The present study shows that a rider or handler influences, but not completely masks, the horses' innate behavior in a temperament test," concluded the team.

The study "Equine behaviour and heart rate in temperament tests with or without rider or handler" was published in Physiology and Behavior in May 2011. The abstract is available online.

About the Author

Casie Bazay, NBCAAM

Casie Bazay holds a bachelor of science degree in education from Oklahoma State University. She taught middle school for ten years, but now is a nationally certified equine acupressure practitioner and freelance writer. She has owned Quarter Horses nearly her entire life and has participated in a variety of horse events including Western and English pleasure, trail riding, and speed events. She was a competitive barrel racer for many years and hopes to pursue the sport again soon.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners