Researchers in Canada recently took 10 cold-blooded horses including percherons, shires and heavy cross-breeds, with an average age of 10, chosen for their placid temperaments, in an effort to find out whether horses can tell if you are afraid of them or not — and if it makes a difference to the way they behave.
The researchers then took 16 people who had never worked with or ridden horses before and asked them to score themselves for fearfulness, based on previous fleeting equine experience.
One by one, the horses were led into a small, round pen, in the centre of which a blindfolded human stood still for five minutes. The humans were split into three categories: calm, stressed by exertion from vigorous exercise, or stressed by fear of horses. As a control, each horse was also put in a pen with no human at all.
Horse and human heart rates were monitored remotely. The horses’ behaviour was analysed on video and scored for degree of anxiety or relaxation. The results revealed that the horses were more stressed by having no one in the pen than by having a human there, irrespective of the human’s anxiety.
There was no difference in horse behaviour or stress in the presence of a calm, confident person compared with someone very scared of horses. The horses were calmest and least stressed in the presence of a sweaty person who had just exercised.
The scientists concluded that being frightened of horses does not increase the risk of being hurt by them. The pheromones in human sweat may have calmed the horses — or perhaps they associated sweaty people with their normal work, which they enjoyed.
This article was first published in Horse & Hound (18 September 2014)