Research at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences confirms what riders have always known: a nervous rider or handler can cause his or her horse to become nervous as well.
For the final pass, the rider or handler was told that an assistant standing next to the track would open an umbrella as they passed by. However, when the participants actually walked the final pass, the assistant did not open an umbrella. The actual conditions of the final pass were the same as the preceding three, the only variable being the rider or handler’s expectation of an event that could cause the horse to spook.
The humans’ heart rates increased significantly as they anticipated the action. The horses were unaware of the expected action, but their heart rates increased as well, apparently in response to their rider or handlers’ nervousness.
“The increase in heart rate probably means that the horses were more alert and prepared to react to any potential danger,” said Dr. Linda Keeling, the professor of animal welfare who led the study.
For practical application, this research suggests that a rider anticipating their horse spooking at something, such as a plastic bag on the side of the trail, may actually increase the likelihood of the horse spooking. Additionally, a rider with pre-show nerves may inadvertantly be causing his or her horse to anticipate danger.
The results of the study were published in The Veterinary Journal in 2009.