We were cautioned as an audience at a recent Cavalla performance to refrain from flash photography for the safety of the horses and riders…I was skeptical.

I reasoned the stressful part for the horses would be what’s going on inside the ring. Performing in close proximity to other horses while more gallop about in random directions. Humans and equipment dangling above eye level, yet trained not to take his focus off the trainer with the whip. Much to make a prey animal feel vulnerable.

Stage fright for people and horses stems from different roots. Researchers studied the effects audiences have on humans and equine stress levels.

Mareike Becker-Birck, PhD and colleagues employed eight geldings--classical dressage horses from the French National Equestrian School in Saumur--and their seven male riders during a dress rehearsal and during a public performance in front of hundreds of spectators.

The team measured each horse's and human's salivary cortisol ("stress hormone") levels, heart rates, and heart rate variability (which appears to be a more specific stress indicator than heart rate alone).

For both horses and humans, cortisol levels and heart rates rose during both the rehearsal and the actual performance, compared to shortly before each activity. The humans' heart rates increased much more during the show performance than during the rehearsal. The horses' heart rates, however, remained essentially the same for both the performance and the rehearsal. The other cardiac variables supported the heart rate results, indicating that the riders were more stressed during the public performance compared to training than were the horses.

In  a recent blog I mused that for horse people, more competition goes on outside the ring than inside. Fear of criticism, failure and gossip can steal our confidence and upset our stomachs. Some claim horses “sense” or even “smell” our fear. Next week we’ll have a look at what the science says…

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Comment by B. G. Hearns on September 27, 2012 at 8:15am

But I also recently got to ride as part of a drill team and the horses were definitely reflecting the nervousness of the riders, especially during the practices, balking, bucking, cutting corners and slowing/speeding up.

In the end, by the time we did the performance, everyone was calmed out and everything went beautifully.

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