Does Eye Contact Matter When Catching a Horse?

How horses respond to eye contact from someone who's trying to catch them has piqued the curiosity of scientists. Animals can interpret direct eye contact from people in various ways, including as a gesture of dominance or aggression.

Could keeping eye contact while approaching a loose horse be a strategy for encouraging them to more easily be haltered? Or is avoiding making eye contact altogether the key for a willingly caught horse?

Researchers at University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine tested catching techniques with over one hundred horses and ponies. The same person attempted to catch each of the animals in an open pasture.

girl approaches horse in loose field

Researchers have looked at whether a loose horse is easier to catch if you make eye contact.

For half the equines, the handler avoided looking the horse in the eye while approaching. The other horses were approached while maintaining eye contact. Three weeks later, most of the horses were tested again, but using the opposite method.

This study found that the horses and ponies were no more wary of being caught by someone looking them in the eye. In fact, whether or not the handler avoided eye contact while in the pasture had no influence on how successful they were in actually catching the horses.

Reference

Sarah Verrill and Sue McDonnell. 2008. Equal Outcomes with and without Human-to-Horse Eye Contact When Catching Horses and Ponies in an Open Pasture. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 28(5): 309-312.

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