Patting or scratching – what does your horse prefer?


When you want to give your horse some positive encouragement, do you pat or scratch? Though small gestures, both are intended to help foster a nurturing relationship between a rider and his or her horse. However, one reward may be better than the other to convey your message of a job well done, according to a new study from British equitation scientists.

It turns out that it's likely better to scratch, not pat, to reward a horse, Emily Hancock, MSc, of Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, told The Horse. She said this is because scratching is a natural behavior among horses, whereas patting is not.

"Wither scratching could potentially increase horse/human bonding and act as a more effective reward," Hancock explained to the source. "Riders and handlers should be encouraged to scratch rather than pat their horses as a reward."

The study looked at 16 horse/rider combinations in the Grand Prix Special dressage test of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. All in all, pats were by far the main type of non-aid contact. Fifteen of the riders patted their horse when they finished the test, and 12 of whom patted for a full minute. As a result, horses tended to move their ears, shake their heads, paw, and move back and forth – which are not promising gestures. Yet, when the horses were scratched on the withers for 30 seconds four times, with 15-second breaks, they displayed much better signs.

"We noted a lot of mutual grooming and especially upper lip movement during the scratching phases, but there was just none of this at all when the horses were being patted," Hancock told The Horse.

Although it may seem like a trivial matter, establishing trust is a key element of a healthy equine-human relationship. A simple scratch could prove to be more effective in strengthening your bond.