To pat, or not to pat. That is the question we horse people have been asking ourselves, and it’s also one that a group of British equitation scientists recently aimed to resolve.

Their study's results lead them to believe that it seems better to scratch, not pat, to reward a horse, said Emily Hancock, MSc, under the supervision of Sarah Redgate, PhD, both of Nottingham Trent University in Nottingham, the United Kingdom. Hancock presented the research at the 2014 International Society for Equitation Science conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Bredsten, Denmark.

“Wither scratching could potentially increase horse/human bonding and act as a more effective reward,” Hancock said, adding that scratching is a natural behavior among horses, whereas patting is not. “Riders and handlers should be encouraged to scratch rather than pat their horses as a reward.”

The issue of patting versus scratching had not previously been addressed in scientific studies, she said. In her study Hancock and her fellow researchers observed 16 horse/rider combinations in the Grand Prix Special dressage test of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Overall, pats dominated any other type of non-aid contact: Riders issued 350 pats throughout the Grand Prix competition and only three strokes.

Of the 16 riders, 15 patted their horses when they finished the test, and 12 of these patted for at least a full minute. As a result, 34% of the horses displayed visible behavioral reactions, mainly speeding up their movements when they received the pats, Hancock sa