Researchers Studying Horse Fear, Aim to Reduce Riding Injuries

August 01, 2006 - News Release

University of Guelph researchers will be placing heart rate monitors on horses and their riders during the International Student Riding Nations’ Cup Aug. 9 to 12 in Innisfil, Ont., to determine how a rider influences a horse’s fear.

The goal is to help reduce the number of horseback riding injuries resulting from nervous horses. About 25 per cent of all fatal sports injuries are related to horseback riding, and about a quarter of all horse-related injuries are due to the horse being scared.

“Studies show that your chances of getting injured riding a horse are far higher than while riding a motorcycle because the horse’s nerves can make it jump unpredictably,” said Uta von Borstel, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science. She is conducting the research with her advisory committee: Profs. Ian Duncan and Anna Kate Shoveller of the Department of Animal and Poultry Science; Prof. Suzanne Millman, Department of Population Medicine; and Prof Linda Keeling of the Swedish Agricultural University.

“If the horse is picking up on the rider’s tension or nervousness, then perhaps we can give the rider relaxation techniques that could result in fewer horse-riding injuries.”

This is the first time Canada is hosting the international student riding competition. Since each participant must ride three different horses, von Borstel will have the opportunity to compare the horse’s nervousness based on the nervousness of different riders.

“We will also look at the riders who do well in the competition to see if they have certain attributes that keep the horse calm,” she said, adding that preliminary results from a previous controlled study looking at riders’ and horses’ heart rates show that horses do pick up on and react to nervous riders.

"Perhaps a very confident rider who notices the horse is nervous is able to control his or her own tension/nervousness,” she said.

With the study results, von Borstel suspects she’ll see a pattern of temperaments of riders or horses that are more prone to nervousness. “If that’s the case, we can recommend that certain types of riders and horses shouldn’t be combined and can promote training for the riders that helps them actively relax.”

Surprisingly, it’s not show jumping that causes the most injuries, said von Borstel. “Studies show that there are about the same number of injuries in dressage riding as in show jumping.” This could be because dressage horses are bred or trained to be more sensitive, whereas at show jumping competitions, horses are used to loud music and people clapping and don’t get scared as easily, she said.

Riders are also often injured while just handling the horses, said von Borstel, who’s been riding horses since she was a girl. “They can get pushed to the side and fall because the horse jumps.”

Canada has two teams of three riders competing in the upcoming competition. U of G undergraduates Michelle Ewart, Becky Steer and Michelle Visneski make up the Eastern Canada team. They will compete against teams from more than 20 countries. For more information on the riding competition, contact Shoveller at

Prof. Suzanne Millman
Dept. of Population Medicine
519 824-4120, Ext. 53677

Uta von Borstel
Department of Animal and Poultry Science
51 824-4120, Ext. 53557 or

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rebecca Kendall 519 824-4120, Ext. 56039.

University of Guelph
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Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1