A horse’s temperament results from a combination of genetics and handling from a young age, but how much influence does a rider or handler have on a horse’s behavior? According to a recent study led by Uta Konig von Borste, PhD, professor at the University of Goettingen in Germany, riders and handlers might have a considerable effect on a horse’s behavior, especially in fearful situations.

Using a temperament test, Konig’s research team evaluated 65 Hanoverian riding horses to compare the horses’ heart rate and behavior as they encountered three different fear-inducing stimuli (visual, visual/tactile, visual/auditory) while being ridden, led, and running free. Horses were ridden and led by either professional or experienced amateur riders, and the team compared reactions of horses ridden and handled by both rider groups as well.

During each horse’s encounter with a stimulus researchers measured the following variables using a visual analog scale (0-10, with 10 being a maximum reaction) with the minimum and maximum scores being precisely defined: horse’s activity, emotional expression, reactivity, time to calm down, and rider’s intensity of cueing the horse. Horses were also equipped with monitors to measure changes in heart rate during each part of the test.

Some key findings in the study include:

  • Riding was linked with the strongest or medium reactions from horses, while leading was linked with the weakest reactions;
  • Rider level influenced the horses’ emotional expressions; horses ridden by professionals earned lower scores (showing less reaction) than those ridden by