Yes! A clear round! Not a single bar down! Woohoo! All right! Big high-five, buddy!
Uh, yeah, maybe not.
I’m every bit as excited as the next person when my favorite sports team make a great move, whether that’s a touchdown or a three-point basket or a home run or a clear show jumping round. And I know how it goes—the loudspeakers blare out the celebration theme, the crowds jump and roar, the sports announcers declare that it’s incredible, and everyone on the team, including the coach, high-fives the superstar. That’s part of sportsmanship; it’s an expression of thrill; and it’s usually a great honor to the "high-fivee."
But when that "high-fivee" has hooves instead of hands, well, I fear the honor gets a little misconstrued.
Again and again at the 2014 Alltech World Equestrian Games in Normandy, I saw riders doing this sort of modified high-five with their horses. Yes, I get it that they’re thrilled and energized, and I get it that they are loving that horse at that moment about as much as possible. They want that horse to know that they’re about as happy with him as they can get.
But that modified high-five—most would probably call an exuberant “pat”—is actually a pretty tough slap on the neck. Three or four in a row, usually, distributed with all the power generated from the excitement of the success of the round and the ambiance in the stadium, with pops so loud sometimes you can hear them over the cheers.
While that all looks really super-duper sporty, the thing is, the horse is probably there going, “What? What did I do? Why are you slapping me? I just did a clear round!”
Of course, patting horses is a pretty common way of thanking them. People have been doing it for decades, probably centuries, in all disciplines of competition and of course outside the competition ring as well.
But all that probably means is that for decades and probably centuries, we’ve been confusing our horses. “Hey,” our horses might be saying. “I did a good job! How come I always get hit on the neck when I’ve done my best?”
Researchers have been looking into the kinds of tactile (touch) rewards horses would prefer. Andrew McLean, PhD, has even successfully trained some of his research horses using wither scratching alone as a positive reinforcement aid (with no negative reinforcement at all). And researchers know horses are sensitive to touch, with much higher sensitivity than people used to think. Some research groups have even demonstrated how differently horses respond to different kinds of massage techniques, indicating that they’re highly sensitive and able to distinguish slight differences in touch.
We know now that horses prefer the gentle touch, and my guess is that they probably have no real understanding of the concept of that honorable sportsman’s high-five they’re getting in the show ring. I know it might seem a little bit less anticlimactic out there if riders stopped slap-patting their horses after clear rounds and started scratching their withers instead.
Still, some dressage riders have already started doing this, and it works. Granted, dressage doesn’t garner quite the same ambiance as a show jumping stadium. (That being said, you should hear the explosive cheering after Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro end a freestyle routine!) But gentle caressing and scratching works to convey the “All right, buddy, you did a great job!” message to the horse far better than any human culture slapping techniques ever could.
How do you thank your horse for a job well done?