We often see riders slapping their horse on the neck enthusiastically at the end of a showjumping round or dressage test. Patting is considered by many to be a way of telling the horse that they have performed well – but is this the reward we think it is, or could it cause them discomfort?

Horses are extremely sensitive to touch and many riders use different pressures ranging from a light pat to a slap. To find out more about how horses feel about this, a team of equine scientists at Nottingham Trent University set out to investigate the effects of patting and wither scratching horses when ridden or being handled.

For the first part of the study, footage of 16 competitors in the dressage Grand Prix at the 2012 London Olympics was analysed to see how and when the riders patted their horses, and how they reacted. 

Fifteen riders patted their horses, with 12 continuing to do so for over a minute. A significant percentage of these pats resulted in the horse reacting. Most commonly, the horses accelerated – sometimes they changed gait from walk to trot. This could indicate that the horses found the patting unpleasant, or that they took the opportunity to accelerate because the rider dropped the rein contact and/or leant forward.

In a second part to the study, a group of five well-handled riding school ponies and five relatively un-touched rescue horses were patted or scratched four times, for 30 seconds at a time. The study was filmed and the horses’ behavioural responses were noted.

Patting resulted in little behavioural reaction. However, wither scratching seemed to be much more effective as a reward to the horse. Some lowered their heads, moved their upper lips and tried to mutually groom the handler – all responses similar to those seen in positive horse-to-horse interaction. 

The researchers concluded that riders and handlers should be encouraged to scratch rather than pat their horse as a reward.

Previous research has shown that scratching the withers consistently lowers the horse's heart rate and can therefore be a useful aid to calm them in anxious situations. Wither scratching may also improve the horse/human relationship as mutual grooming does between horses. 

Research team: Emily Hancock, Sarah Redgate and Carol Hall of Nottingham Trent University. 2014.

Image by Ihourahane 2012 Olympics - Team Dressage Final, Creative Commons