Editor’s note: This article is part of TheHorse.com’s ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.


Horse people have long said that horses can pick up cues about how nervous or how calm the humans around them are. Now, according to a group of equitation scientists, scientific evidence is beginning to develop behind that theory.

During a presentation at the 8th International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor and equine program coordinator at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, explained that horses loose in a round pen react differently to calm versus nervous humans. And interestingly enough, they show the calmest reactions toward the most stressed humans.

"In modern times in the Western world, horses have become companions–and even more so, friends," Merkies said. "But a new hot topic is using horses in therapy, and so it’s important to know how horses react to people who aren’t familiar with them or even frightened of them."

In her study Merkies and colleagues employed 10 horses (draft-type geldings very familiar with people) and 16 humans. They first asked the humans to evaluate their comfort level with horses on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most afraid of horses. Merkies also recruited two horse-friendly humans to be physically stressed (just after intense exercise) at the moment of the experiment to evaluate horses’ reactions to individuals in physical distr