Have you ever wondered if your horse prefers to be scratched or patted as a reward? Well, a group of scientists in England had just that thought. The issue of patting versus scratching hadn’t been previously addressed in scientific studies, so Dr. Sara Redgate and Emily Handcock, Msc. of Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, United Kingdom decided to see if scratching the horses’ withers (withers are located at the top of the shoulder at the base of the horse’s neck) could potentially increase horse/human bonding and act as a more effective reward.  Hancock noted,  “Scratching is a natural behavior among horses, whereas patting is not. Riders and handlers should be encouraged to scratch rather than pat their horses as a reward.”  

To test their theory, they observed 16 horse/rider combinations at the Grand Prix Special dressage test of the 2012 Olympic games in London. Overall, patting their horse dominated any other type of non-aid given contact by the riders.  The reactions of the horses indicated 34 percent of the horses displayed visible behavioral reactions, for example: speeding up their movements when they received the pats. Those that received scratching rewards stayed calmer and moved less. 

The scientists then investigated the effects of patting versus wither-scratching in 10 riding school horses. In this study, the handlers patted each horse for 30 seconds four times. They then scratched their withers four times for the same time period. The team recorded heart rate and behavior on all the horses. 

The researchers found that the horses moved their ears more when they were patted and were more reactive. However, when they were scratched on the withers, the horses tended to put their heads down and start to relax their jaws. These are signs of calmness and understanding in horses. Hancock said, “Even more remarkable, was the fact that wither-scratching seemed to prompt behaviors that weren’t seen at all in patting or during the control phase. 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.”

In contrast, during the patting phase, the horses exhibited much more movement, more head-shaking, more moving back and forwards, slightly more raised heads and more pawing, indicating anxiety. Interesting to note, no pawing was seen at all during the scratching phase. 

So, in your next interaction with your favorite horse, give them a good scratching as a reward, speak to them in a language that they understand, friendship!  Happy Trails! 


LORI RICIGLIANO is a horse judge, trainer, riding instructor, equine photographer and clinician. She also hosts a weekly syndicated equine radio talk show “Hoof Beats with Lori." Lori has held her horse judges license as a USEF / AHA - “R” rated licensed horse judge for more than 25 years and currently operates Ricigliano Farms Horse Training and Riding Academy near Kent, Minn. She can be reached by email or phone for any questions at 218- 557-8762 or riciglianofarms@gmail. com. Her website is www. RiciglianoFarms.com

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