Catching Your Horse: Eye Contact Might Not Matter

According to a University of Pennsylvania study, whether or not you make eye contact with your horse doesn't necessarily influence how successful you'll be in catching him in an open pasture.

Experienced horse handlers and educators have encouraged owners to use or not use eye contact while catching horses for different reasons. Some have taught that direct eye contact helps assert dominance or encourage trust, while others have argued that horses interpret eye contact as stalking behavior from a predator.

According to Sue McDonnell, MS, PhD, Certified AAB, the founder and head of the Equine Behavior Program at the University of Pennsylvania's school of veterinary medicine, "The question came up when a student had difficulty catching one of the school's mares, and she said it wasn't her fault because she didn't make eye contact." McDonnell later found that although the question is an important one, the effects of eye contact had never been studied in horses.

In the study, the investigator approached 104 horses and ponies owned by the University of Pennsylvania in open pastures while either making direct eye contact or avoiding it entirely. The test subjects came from two different groups--74 were semiferal, rarely handled Shetland-type ponies, while the remaining 30 were horses frequently used for research and teaching at the university. The ponies were then retested with the opposite strategy.

There were no differences between the animals in either group or between animals of different sexes or ages. Among the ponies, all but seven were consistently caught or not caught.

While eye contact appeared to play no role in this study, the investigator did find that older horses were more easily caught than younger horses.

McDonnell says more research needs to be done before making any conclusions. "That's what research does--it leads you to the next question. We're just starting to look at this issue."

The study, "Equal Outcomes with and without Human-to-Horse Eye Contact When Catching Horses and Ponies in an Open Pasture," was published in the May 2008 Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Authors were Verrill, BS, and; McDonnell, MS, PhD. The study was done as a student summer project with the help of the Dorothy Russell Havemeyer Foundation.

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