Touch Me, Please! Petting A Nervous Horse Does Not Reinforce Fear

Horses that become fearful or anxious because of something in their environment can be calmed by a soothing tone or gentle scratches on the withers, reports The Horse. Touch in particular is thought to reduce physiological arousal and relieve anxiety. When the horse relaxes, it can function in normally. In a study presented in 2015, it was shown that scratching on the withers reduced anxiety levels more than patting on the neck or no touching at all.

Some horses are not calmed by touch and actually become more anxious; others may become anxious as their owners or handlers are anxious as they are scratching and talking to them, influencing the horse with their anxiety.

Though attention can be a reward for voluntary behaviors, it is not a reward for involuntary behaviors like fear and anxiety. Talking to and petting a horse can reduce a horse’s tension, but ignoring the fear in a mildly stressed horse can also have merit. Exposure to stressors and being forced to deal with them on their own can help the horse develop resiliency.

Additionally, if the relationship between human and horse is strong, the person themselves can be a safety signal for the horse, who believes that the person will protect him from danger.

Read more at The Horse.

Thorbergson, Z. (2015) Physiological and behavioral responses of horses to wither scratching and patting the neck when under saddle. International Society of Equitation Science Conference Proceedings, Abstract 16.

Lyons, D.M., Parker, K.J., Katz, M., and Schatzberg, A.F. (2009). Developmental cascades linking stress inoculation, arousal regulation, and resilience. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 3, doi: 10.3389/neuro.08.032.2009

Christianson, J.P., Fernando, A.B.P., Kazama, A.M., Javanovic, T., Ostroff, L.E., and Sangha, S.  (2012). Inhibition of fear by learned safety signals: A mini symposium review. The Journal of Neuroscience 32: 14118-14124.

McGreevy, P., Henshall, C., Starling, M., McLean, A., and Boakes, R. (2014). The importance of safety signals in animal handling and training. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 9, 382-387.

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