To Pat Or Not To Pat – You Decide

I was reading a study the other day by ISES (International Society for Equitation Science) in which Dr Andrew McLean and Professor Paul McGreevy suggest that “Patting – rather than stroking – may not be the positive reinforcer we think it is”.

In this report McGreevy cited unpublished data that shows that 2/3 (two thirds) of horses at the 2012 Olympics accelerated on being patted, whereas horses stroked on the wither displayed more ‘affiliative behaviour’ Power(friendlier for those of us who don’t speak equitation science).

This theory is not new and was bought to my attention many years ago.  It is suggested that giving a little rub on the wither will help lower a horses heart-rate and settle them better than a pat.

For me the issue is not should we pat or should we not pat – it is how the pat is delivered that is the key. A hearty loud slap on the neck may not mean much to a horse and for me a quiet, delicate touch that sends a gentle sensation through the horse creates a much more pleasant sensation and as with everything in dressage, when you are pleased with your horse and you want to reward him – less is more!

patMy personal view is that I’m not sure how necessary it is to make a scientific study of the subject.  Most equestrians know when their horse reacts positively to the delivery of their reward (be it a gentle pat or a scratch) whether the delivery is right or not and given that horses learn through repetition the hearty slap might not feel the best but if this is what you do when you have just finished the jump off and you have gone clear, it will be associated with pleasing circumstances and a happy rider.  Surely this will therefore reinforce the positive outcome.


Bit like the ‘Pile On Celebration’ in team sports.

Can’t imagine for a minute that it feels good physically but it sure does feel good emotionally!

  • Any thoughts? What do you think about the patting principal?
  • Given that most scientific studies throw up more questions than answers. What do you think about science in equestrianism?
  • Is this type of study helpful? Necessary?

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster





5 Responses

  1. It seems like u actually understand a great deal related to this
    topic and it demonstrates as a result of this specific posting,
    called “To PAT or not to PAT – You decide | The Crystal System”.
    Thx -Ellen

  2. Patting is only a reinforcer if it has been conditioned. If we pair patting with a primary reinforcer like food then the pat becomes a secondary reinforcer.
    The scratching the wither could be considered a primary reinforcer but it all depends on the horse. What say the wither is sore?? The horse is the only judge of whether or not anything we do to them is aversive or reinforcing. My horses seemt to enjoy a good ‘smack’ when I’m getting that horse fly off them….:-)

    1. I concur, Lyndsey. This study is suggesting that patting is not good, whereas I have evidenced many occasions where a pat visibly re-assures the horse because he has come to expect a pat as re-assurance! As you say, where it has been conditioned. The debate will go on no doubt … off to ride my horse. Hope she’s a good girl so I can give her a good pat! lol

  3. Hm, I think the evidence is pretty clear that in general patting is not seen as a per se positive thing, as Lydnsey has already pointed out. And though he can learn to understand that it is supposed to be a reward, I wonder why bother to turn something initially bad to mean something good? To me it’s like slapping a child and telling him afterwards it was supposed to mean “good boy”. Seeing many dressage riders patting their horses like crazy after a successful round – they leave the animals with their skin burning. I don’t see any sense in that at all.

    1. Good point Nadja. Why try to train something deemed physically aversive into something positive. Of course we have to consider context and environment always. There is a modality in massage called tapotement where the hands slap or bump and it can feel great! It’s used at the end of sports massage sometimes just before the athlete is about to perform. It has many functions but one is to increase blood supply to the big muscles.

      When I’ve experienced it, I really liked it. But I’ve never been able to do it to my horses and have the feeling they liked it unless I kept the tapping very soft. But perhaps a more experienced bodyworker would do a better job…?? I know that’s a bit different that a pat that’s a sort of slap but I think there can be a fine line.

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