KBR Horse Training Information

Exercising Body AND Mind

Exercising Body AND Mind

"Pats or Scratches?"

Does your horse really like that slap on the neck, or does he liken it to that overzealous great-aunt that used to pinch your cheeks when you were a young child? My guess is unless he has become acclimated to and accepts hard pats as a sign of your affection, he'd really prefer a nice scratch.

While dogs may slap each other around in play, horses generally associate "sudden contact" with a reproach or sign of annoyance.


Illustration from the BLM's
Getting Acquainted pamphlet.

Countless times I've observed an eager rider rewarding his or her horse for a job well done with several slaps to the neck. When I see it coming, I try to observe the horse's facial expressions. Many times the horse will briefly act surprised or annoyed, ears briefly laying flat or whites of the eyes showing, and then they appear to realize "Oh, it's OK" and their expressions relax.

A more critical aspect of patting involves the energy transmitted when patting a horse, particularly one that is anxious. We pop the horse with our crop, rein or hand when we want the horse to get going or increase its motion, or to get the horse to move away from contact such as when we want the horse to yield its shoulder or hindquarters. Patting a horse tends to contradict these intentional cues and some horses will start to become desensitied to contact cues.

I try to avoid slapping any horse unless I'm initiating some form of correction. I particularly don't want to confuse young, inexperienced or former "wild" horses. I want my corrections and rewards to be distincively different and I figure my reward to the horse should appear to be just that to the animal which I am praising. I certainly don't want any horse to think I'm displeased or being aggressive after he has done something well.


Neck and wither scratches are a normal part of horse social behavior and are associated with pleasure. Particularly when learning, I always try to provide a few scratches for a well earned effort, and I'll use scratches as a relaxation tool for a nervous horse or a horse in a completely new situation such as carrying a rider for the first time.

If you're a "patter", try a scratch or two next time. Your horse may really like it!

Giving Missy a neck scratch during her first saddling


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