Fear in horses and how it is affected by the rider, training, and genetics

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von Borstel, Uta Ulrike
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University of Guelph

The fear reactions of riding horses can lead to problems such as accidents which result in injuries to both horse and rider. The objective of this thesis was to identify factors influencing fear in riding horses. Particular attention was paid to the riders' role and how their emotional state, behaviour and riding style can influence horses' fear, nervousness and welfare. Furthermore, horses from distinct breeding lines for show-jumping and dressage were compared for fear reactions and these were contrasted with the effects of long-term training regimens for the two disciplines. Results revealed that riders could induce nervousness in the horse by unconsciously communicating their own nervousness (p<0.05). Since other mechanisms could be excluded, this communication was presumed to be a result of the horses' ability to sense changes in the rider's muscle tension. In some cases, the reverse effect could be observed, in that riders became more nervous in response to the horses' nervousness. Ultimately, this exchange of nervousness might escalate into dangerous fear reactions in the horse. Riding style also appeared to have immediate consequences for fear reactivity in horses. When horses were ridden in the more coercive, and to the horses aversive, Rollku?r riding style, they tended to show stronger fear (p<0.1) at the encounter with fear stimuli than when they were ridden in a regular, and to the horses, preferred riding style. However, differences in fear reactions could not be attributed to differences in long-term training in either show jumping or dressage, but were more likely due to genetic differences. Horses of show jumping lines exhibited weaker fear reactions than horses of dressage lines (p<0.05) regardless of whether they were trained or untrained in their respective discipline. These findings lead to the conclusion that fear reactivity in horses could be reduced: (1) by genetically selecting against fear reactivity in horses, (2) by employing less coercive riding techniques, and (3) potentially by developing and training specific techniques, such as muscle relaxation, that allow riders to interrupt the exchange of nervousness between rider and horse. Ultimately these approaches could aid to improve safety and welfare of both horses and riders.

fear, riding horses, riders' role, emotional state, behaviour, riding style, horses' fear, nervousness, welfare, breeding lines, show-jumping, dressage, fear reactions, training regimens