Recent research has confirmed that horses react to nervousness in their rider or handler.
Linda Keeling, Professor of Animal Welfare, at the Department of Animal Environment and Health, led the study at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala. The project involved the simultaneous recording of the heart rate of horses and the people riding or leading them. It was carried out in an indoor arena familiar to both the horses and people involved.
Horses were led or ridden over a distance of 30m between two markers. This was repeated four times.
The heart rates of both horse and rider or handler dropped on the second and third pass.
Just before walking the horse past the markers for the last time, the handler or rider was warned that something would happen that could frighten the horse. (An assistant who had been standing at the side of the track would open an umbrella.)
In fact, the frightening event never happened. Even so, the heart rate of the rider or handler increased significantly in anticipation of the expected threat.
The horse’s heart rate also increased. Now obviously the horses knew nothing of the potential threat, other than what they sensed from the person leading or riding them.
“The increase in heart rate probably means that the horses were more alert and prepared to react to any potential danger” Dr Keeling explains. “So a nervous person leading or riding a horse may actually increase the risk of the horse being startled by the thing they want to avoid.”
She suggests that increasing the awareness of the unconscious signals that riders may be giving to a horse, particularly those related to nervousness or anxiety, could help reduce accidents.
Fore more details see:
Investigating horse-human interactions: The effect of a nervous human.
LJ Keeling, L Jonare, L Lanneborn.
The Veterinary Journal. (2009) 181, 70 - 71