Rider Ability Can Help Alleviate Stress in Horses

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Two studies of police horse training conducted at Utrecht University in The Netherlands showed the importance of choosing the right horse for the job. The studies also showed that a more skilled and experienced rider can read the cues that indicate stress or fear in a horse and can calm the horse more quickly and effectively than a less-skilled rider.

The studies also showed that a more experienced rider can read the cues that indicate stress or fear in a horse, and that person can calm the horse more quickly and effectively than a less-skilled rider.

In the first experiment, riders guided 12 police horses--some experienced and some new to the job--through a course in which the horses encountered various strange objects such as flags, construction equipment, a large red ball and a smoke machine. The horses were equipped with heart rate monitors and were scored by observers who noted signs of nervous behavior. Although heart rates rose in some of the horses, none showed significant stress, and inexperienced horses were no more likely to show nervous reactions to the strange sights than their more experienced peers.

The researchers attributed the calm attitudes to careful selection and handling of the horses by the police force. Draft horses and draft crosses often make excellent choices for police work because they generally have calm temperaments.

In the second experiment, the researchers monitored stress and fear reactions in nine experienced police horses as the animals were transported, ridden on night patrols along streets lined with bars and dance clubs and subjected to riot-control training. Indicators of stress were low in all circumstances, although some horses showed fear reactions during the riot-control training when each horse performed by itself without the nearby presence of another horse. Fear reactions were less intense and were controlled more quickly when experienced riders were able to sooth their horses with appropriate cues. Inexperienced riders sometimes gave the wrong cues, gave cues too late or began to cue the horses before signs of fear were exhibited. In these cases, the horse’s fear was stimulated rather than calmed.

The researchers concluded that riders should be carefully selected and trained in order to most effectively communicate with their horses and keep their stress and fear levels low.