Eye Contact in Horse Behavior

November 24, 2008 (published)

Today on the program we are going to talk about horse and human interaction and the effect eye contact has on behavior. The effect human eye contact has on animals has been studied in both dogs and sheep and it has been shown that eye contact from humans to dogs can be perceived by the dog as a threat. A recent study indicated human eye contact with sheep made the sheep nervous but did not induce fear in the sheep. The equine behavior lab at the University of Pennsylvania indicates the effect of human eye contact with horses is not well understood. If you listen to professional horse trainers, they all seem to have a different view of the effect of human eye contact with horses. Some report you should use soft eye contact when dealing with horses, meaning you can look at the horse but also keep a wide field of view. Other trainers indicate hard contact is preferred to establish your dominance over the herd. And then other trainers say you should avoid direct eye contact altogether as this will frighten the horse because it will make them think you are stalking them.

Because there is no consistency in the recommendations, the group at Penn performed a study to determine if it was easier to catch horses in a pasture by making direct eye contact or not making direct eye contact. The result of the study indicated it really doesn't make any difference. Many of the horses used in this study were semi-wild ponies and catching them in the pasture was not easier or harder regardless of eye contact. Some of the horses could be caught and others could not, and eye contact had no effect so eye contact may not be a big factor in human-horse interaction.

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