Stupid Study

I came across an article about a stupid study, and i just had to comment.  I couldn’t find the original study, so I wasn’t able to verify any of what’s written in this article.  But from what I can tell, it seems like a pretty crap study.  It sounds a lot like they set out with a conclusion in mind, designed a study that would prove it, and then congratulated themselves on being right all along.

The theory was that nervous people make horses calmer.  Take a minute to let that soak in.

Here’s the link.

Now, I can understand a schoolmaster—or even an unbroken horse—feeling less threatened by someone green and vulnerable placed at the center of a situation like this versus, say, a more confident handler venturing in there with the intention of “being the alpha,” who is naturally going to provoke a more wary, nervous response in the horse.  If the study was just making the distinction between horses' responses to people who seem to know what they are doing and those who don't, maybe I could get behind it...  Horses probably do just dismiss people who they know are scared of them.  It makes perfect sense.

Of course the horses don’t perceive a threat from the inexperienced and nervous novices, blindfolded or not.  And horses that have had good handling throughout their lives can be very tolerant, particularly of inexperienced and nervous beginners who pose them no threat and mean them no obvious harm.  But to draw from that the broader conclusion that all horses are automatically calmed by all nervous people—and worse, made nervous by calm people!—flies in the face of every good horseman’s common sense and experience.

And to extend that out to generalized herd behavior, again, defies observation.  Horses grazing at pasture may relax while they post vigilant sentries to keep an eye out for danger, but one very nervous horse on high alert will definitely set all of them on high alert.  Anyone who’s been around horses for any period of time knows this.  And anyone with a close horse-human relationship knows that a nervous/tense handler or rider has the same effect on a horse as that fellow herd member on high alert does. 

I know, for example, when I'm riding a horse that is about to blow, I can usually avert a major crisis by taking a deep breath, relaxing my body, softening my feel on the reins, petting them, and making a conscious effort to remain calm, even though the instinct is to grab a handful of reins, clamp on for dear life and prepare for the coming explosion.  By relaxing, I can feel the horse relax with me, and I can usually prevent or lessen what would otherwise be a major spook or other problem.  But the opposite is also true; if I tense up in an already stressful situation, I know my horse is going feel it and feed into it, and it is only going to exacerbate the problem.  Horse and human emotions can become a vicious circle, with nervousness, fear, frustration or anger feeding into one another.  Which is why calmness and patience play such an important part in the discipline of good horsemanship.  Horsemanship is a form of meditation as much as a sport.

When horses trust us, they look to us for cues on how to behave and, if we are nervous or tense, they will pick up on it and mirror it, even if they don’t know why.  Often, if our horses are nervous and tense, it will make us nervous and tense as well.  We do affect one another closely, and it is not always clear whose emotional state initiates.  But I fail to see how our being nervous will calm a horse or vice versa.  Rather, if we can discipline ourselves to relax, they will often trust us and relax as well, even if they don’t know why.  That’s part of the magic of the horse-human bond.  And it’s part of why I don’t buy this study.  Experience just doesn’t bear it out.  At least not my experience…

What's your experience been?


  1. It does sound like a completely stupid study. Horses look to us for leadership, and if we're calm and not worried, neither are they. If we're tense or nervous, so are they. I've had the same experience as you in how to calm down a nervous horse - breathing deeply and calmly really helps. One of my favorite Mark Rashid quotes is "your horse spooked, you spooked and you ran off together" the point being that if you hadn't tensed up after your horse spooked, the horse would have calmed right down in most cases.

  2. I don't know what study you are talking about but I do know horse and herd behavior very well. I was also a pretty accomplished rider in my day and despite age,replacement parts and arthritus can still ride very well.
    From the earliest riding lessons as a child I was always told before getting on a horse, any horse, that my mind had to be right and ready to do so. I was also taught and trained that my fears,anxieties, anger, etc. transferred directly from me and into the horse.Calm,quiet, kind and respectful were my key focus areas as a young rider and as I excelled I was also taught and learned a great deal about confidence, compassion,courage, reward and punishment with very little emphasis on the punishment unless it was directly related to herd dynamics and behavior so the horse would clearly understand.As I approach 60 years old I am glad I had good teachers and GREAT horses.

    I learned the most from "the bad horses" as not only did they make me a better rider I also learned a most valuable life lesson. There are very few bad horses and a whole lot more bad people who cause these " stupid studies" in the first place.

  3. Kate - I love that quote. That's exactly my experience, and what I try to keep in mind with my approach to riding and training.

  4. LuvMyTBs- Thank you! So well said :-)

    (btw, i didn't summarize the whole study, but there is an article about the "research" they did if you follow the link)

  5. There is no way a nervous tense human can have a calming effect on a horse. It works just the opposite. From personal experience I can attest to the fact that if a horse is tense, nervous and perhaps on the verge of blowing up the worst thing you as a rider can do is mirror those same feelings. In doing so you'll only validate what the horse is feeling and the whole situation will exacerbate. No one is the winner in a situation like that.

    A rider/handler can get so much more accomplished by remaining calm and trying to help the horse realize there is nothing to worry about. It's up to the rider/handler to talk the horse off the ledge so to speak.

    Everyone who has been around herds of horses can also attest to the fact that when one horse is on high alert it tends to set the rest of them off. I've seen the whole herd gallop home because one of them spooked. Anyway, this was a stupid study and I feel you're right about them setting it up to verify what they wanted it to.

  6. GHM - couldn't agree more. I also wondered why they didn't try it without the blindfolds too... The whole setup was just weird. Not the study I would have done.

  7. Ps, just switched up the comment format, so we'll see how it goes. Sorry for the mess! ;-)

  8. Came here late, but found this a very interesting post.

    I looked at the link you included. Only draft-type horses were tested, so IF their conclusions hold any water, they only apply to that type of horse. I doubt a more hot-blooded breed would behave the same way.

    I am a certified therapeutic riding instructor. We select horses for lessons who are by nature aloof. Draft horses can usually fulfill this requirement. The therapy horse is trained to listen to the handler, a leader in front of the horse. The leader remains calm and reassuring no matter what unexpected behaviors arise from the rider. The horse is calm because of the handler and in spite of the "nervous" or "reactive" rider. I think that this study was flawed in method, because the person in the middle was not asking the horse to do anything. Horses read intent. They knew that the person was just a pawn. I bet they would respond very differently if a handler was asked to give the horse a task while behaving nervously or calmly. There could have been a hidden variable responsible for the data they described. It is hard to say without having the method outline.

    I have never seen a nervous person create calmness in a horse, but I have seen a nervous person make a horse nervous and I have seen a calm person keep a horse calm.

    1. hi val,
      thanks for stopping by and commenting! it sounds like you're in a better position to evaluate this study than me, so i appreciate your input. it makes a lot of sense. they should have had you design the study! but then, they might not have gotten the results they seemed determined to arrive at...

  9. Even the basic concept that a nervous person would be calming to a horse defies all logic. That applies to any horse in any situation.

    I'm not certain what they are trying to accomplish with such a nonsense "study".

    1. i'm glad i'm not the only one who thought it seemed counterintuitive :-\ i'm not sure what they were trying to prove either...

  10. We are the mirror of the horses. They follow what they see and hear in us. If we try to assess that study in this point of view, that is really weird. It defies the essence of horsemanship in totality.

  11. Horse riding is one of those activities that move quickly from being a hobby to becoming a real passion. Horse activities have been shown to benefit children, people with disabilities and those who need to gain confidence in their athletic abilities.

    Horse Riding Bryce Canyon


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