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Betsy Carter’s Horse Scene: Familiarize your horse with the unfamiliar

When your horse encounters a scary object, what do you do?

Do you coerce him to approach the object by using your legs, hands, voice and or crop, along with a pat or word of encouragement when he takes a step in the right direction? Or do you allow him to take all the time he wants to investigate it on his own? Or do you turn around and walk away from the scary object?

Danish scientists have recently done studies that confirm what most us have always been taught to do, that the first option is the best for your horse.

In the study, two groups of horses were used. All of the horses were Dutch warm-blood 2-year-olds.

In Group One, the horses were led one at a time into a small area with an opened umbrella on the ground. These horses were coerced into approaching the umbrella by the handler pulling on the rope, clucking, and tapping the horse with a crop, followed by encouragement when the horses responded correctly.

In Group Two, the horses were allowed to take all the time they wanted to investigate and approach the umbrella. Both groups of horses were monitored for heart rate and stress levels. Group One showed a marked increase in heart rate and stress. Group Two showed a slight increase in heart rates and stress.

On the next day, the two groups of horses were again shown the umbrella, this time with a bucket of feed next to the umbrella. The horses in Group One approached the umbrella more willingly than they had done on the first day and found the food. The horses in Group Two approached the umbrella to find the feed at about the same speed and willingness as on the first day.

The heart rates and stress levels were remarkably lower in Group One on the second encounter and were lower than those of Group Two, whose rates remained about the same as on the first day.

Though the first day of coercion caused much stress on the horses, in the long run it paid off with a calmer, more trusting and courageous horse.

The third choice in the original scenario—letting the horse walk away from the scary object—is the worst choice because horses tend to repeat what they’ve experienced.

Therefore, it seems that accidental exposure to scary things such as tractors, dogs or people suddenly entering a horse’s space is not a good learning experience for the animal. A handler or rider should take the time to make sure his or her horse gets used to encountering unfamiliar objects or situations in a controlled manner.

A horse that remembers a frightening event will repeat the original behavior the next time the animal encounters the same situation.


Sept. 22: Moriah; Fox chase; Coventry; Elmington

Sept. 23: Oakland Heights; BBHSA; Hidden Haven; Sandstone

Sept. 26–30: HITS Culpeper

Sept. 29: Whitestone; Silver Lining

Sept. 30: Lake of the Woods; TWA Warrenton; Sumerduck

Betsy Carter can be reached at The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401; or by fax at 540/373-8455.

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