Do horses sense fear?

Ever been rattled by your classmate’s hand-wringing before an exam? Or the patient before you, wincing and holding their jaw as they emerge from the dentist’s room?  Confidence erodes into fear.

It’s not that you sense or smell fear. You’re reading their body language…and catching angst like an infection.

When a riding student wonders if their horse senses they’re nervous, I ask them “Do you think your nervousness changes the way you ride and move around your horse?”

“Do our horses appear to act up because they’re nervous and anxious when we are? Or is it, rather, because when we’re nervous, our muscles get tenser and our aids become completely different from what the horse is used to? To me that makes more logical sense.” Dr. Katrina Merkies, PhD, associate professor and equine program coordinator, University of Guelph

Dr. Merkies describes good human to horse communication as based mostly on correctly applied learning theory—the science of how horses learn.
When we move around horses in a way that’s consistent and clear, it gives the horse a sense of a predictability instead of fear. And a certain amount of predictability gives us all a sense of peace.