There has always been much interest in horse behaviour and their interaction with humans.
Popular horse-handling experts draw crowds to their demonstrations, but there is disagreement about the value or significance of eye-to-eye contact between horse and handler.
Some horse-charming gurus insist that eye contact is necessary to establish and maintain a dominant herd-mate relationship with the horse; others believe that as a prey species, nervous or untrained horses perceive direct eye contact as a threat.
In the equine behaviour laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, such things are investigated in a rigorous and objective manner.
Two scientists have recently conducted an experiment to test whether direct eye contact is important in the process of catching horses that are loose at pasture.
The researchers used 104 horses and ponies; 74 were semi-feral ponies and 30 were horses and ponies previously used for a variety of equine sports. All ages and sexes were included in the study.
In the case of the semi-feral ponies, the aim was for a stranger to place a lead rope around its neck, whereas with the others a headcollar was used.
On one occasion, direct, hard eye-to-eye contact with the animal was made in the last five metres, and on the second occasion, the approach was repeated with the handler’s eyes averted from the horse’s.
The results showed there was no difference at all between the two methods; eye contact or no, the ponies decided for themselves when they would be caught.
So, the message is? If your pony is a swine to catch in the paddock, don’t think eye-contact psychology will win him over.
Stick to the tried and trusted method and use a carrot.
For more of the latest veterinary research and developments, see the current issue of Horse & Hound (29 January, ’09)