Horses and Humans: A Positive Relationship Back »

Photo courtesy of Michelle Tritz Photography.

Written by Savanna Tomoson under the direction and review of Rebecca Bott.


Humans and horses have a long and storied history together. In each human and horse interaction a positive, established relationship must be formed between the horse and their human partner (rider, owner, caregiver, etc.). It is equally important that the horse and their partner are mindful participants in the relationship. According to research by Hockenhull and Birke (2015), a positive relationship between a horse and their partner consists of trust, cooperation and attentiveness while tension might indicate a strained or unfamiliar relationship. Yet, these characteristics may be lacking in a new relationship between a horse and an unfamiliar person. If these three things are equally displayed in both the horse and their human partner, they will be able to succeed more in day-to-day functions and desired performance.

Horse Performance Study: Familiar vs. unfamiliar riders

This research from Hockenhull and Birke (2015) illustrates the importance of a positive relationship between a horse and their partner. Twenty-one horse participants were involved in the research. Each horse was asked to complete a prescribed course consisting of groundwork with their familiar partner (owner/caretaker) as well as an unfamiliar partner. Horses were divided into two groups with one group completing the course with the familiar person first, and the other group completing the course with the unfamiliar person first. Horses were provided a few minutes to rest before completing the course again with their second partner. Each pair was video recorded completing their courses. Videos were coded so that a horse was shown participating with a familiar and an unfamiliar person, in random order. These clips were shown to students in Animal Science and Equine Science programs. Students were asked to describe what they observed in each horse and human pair. Common words used to describe the partnerships included cooperation, tension, trust, and attention. These words were identified as themes for which a second group of observers would evaluate the same set of videos.

The second group of observers watched the videos and rated each pair on a scale from one to five on the four themes: cooperation, tension, trust and attention (1=no trust, 5=complete trust). The results of these ratings showed that a horse paired with an unfamiliar partner scored lower overall in all four themes than horses paired with a familiar partner. For attentiveness, it was noted that a horse paired with an unfamiliar partner spent more time looking around at things separate from the task at hand. For cooperation, it was noted that horses paired with a familiar partner tended to be more willing and relaxed to do as asked. For example, a horse with an unfamiliar partner was documented to have stopped more often than with a familiar partner. While these behaviors may not have been highly noticeable by video observers during the performance, a sports analysis program allowed for the clips to be dissected to better find differences that could have otherwise been missed.

Each human participant also watched the videos of their own horse. Some noted that their horse looked around more with an unfamiliar partner showing that they were not as attentive. Also, human participants noted that their familiar horse was not as confident with an unfamiliar partner. They described this by stating that horses spent less time looking at the obstacles and more time looking at the unfamiliar person. This illustrated that the horse was not yet trusting of the partner and thus was not able to relax. Finally, human participants noted that their horse displayed more resistance with an unfamiliar person; stopping more often or resisting when it was time to lead, leading to more tension on the lead rope. Collectively, this research illustrates the importance of a positive, established relationship between a horse and their partner by showing that confidence and attention decrease while tension increases when a horse is placed with an unfamiliar person. For more information on this study on the human-horse relationship please read: Journey Together: Horses and Humans in Partnership (Hockenhull, J. & Birke, L. 2015).

Cooperation, Trust, Attention, & Tension

It is important to evaluate the relationship with your horse in the four areas of cooperation, trust, attention, and tension. This will allow you to further develop your relationship. For example, if your horse is hesitant to lead with you, will not walk up to you willingly, or does not display a calm eye in your presence, it may not trust you. Spending quality time with your horse, such as brushing or massaging them can help to gain their trust. It is also important to use a calm voice and demeanor. With regard to cooperation, if your horse is hesitant to do what you ask of it, such as not walking off as instructed, you may need to work on cooperation. Cooperation can be tied to trust. If your horse does not trust you it will not want to cooperate with you. Once you have gained your horses trust it is more likely to want to cooperate with you. Finally, if your horse is not attentive it may not be focused on the task you are instructing it to do. Attentiveness can be achieved by increasing the frequency and diversity of activities with your horse. Engage it with new tasks, while reinforcing key principles. Once you succeed in all four themes of a positive relationship, you will be better able to achieve your goals together.

In Summary

As humans, it is crucial to be willing partners in the human-horse relationship. A positive relationship is composed of trust, cooperation and attentiveness. Your role is to provide leadership and framework to establish a positive nature to the partnership. It is crucial that you are trusting, cooperative and attentive to your horse and that you offer opportunity for the horse to return the favor. Due to the habitual behavior of horses, this harmony is likely achieved through consistency in training, feeding, and interactions.


Reference: Hockenhull, J. & Birke, L. (2015). Journey Together: Horses and Humans in Partnership.

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