Imagine the scenario: You’re out on a trail ride and suddenly your horse spooks at, say, a scary-looking tree stump near your path. You have three choices:

  1. Encourage your horse (with your legs, voice, reins, crop, etc.) to move toward the stump to find out it’s not so scary after all;
  2. Be patient, allowing the horse time to figure out that the stump really isn’t so scary in his own time; or
  3. Turn around and go home (or take a different path) and flee that scary stump.

What do you choose to do, and what’s best for your horse?

Danish equitation scientists recently investigated this question. They found that if you want to get past the stump, Choice 1 could be better for both you and the horse, even though it might be more stressful than Choice 2. Janne Winther Christensen, PhD, presented on the topic at the 8th International Society for Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

"Horse riding is a relatively dangerous sport, and habituation to new objects has been known to reduce the risk of accidents," said Winther Christensen, a research scientist at the faculty of agricultural sciences at Aarhus University in Tjele, Denmark. "If an animal avoids or escapes an object and can get away from it, that avoidance behavior gets reinforced, and the animal is likely to repeat the behavior. But also, studies in other species have shown that prevention of innate behavior (flight response) can lead to increased stress in the animal. So we wanted to find out what was best for horses."

Christensen and colleagues studied 22 Danish Warmblood