Question: Top riders often say they can feel when a horse “tries” extra hard for them in a class (i.e. puts in extra effort to jump clear at a wide fence, etc.). Horses are trained to do what we ask them, but how do you explain that extra “try” factor, which is often subtle and in many cases, only something an experienced rider who rides hundreds of different horses could identify?

Renate Larssen: This is an interesting question! As far as I know, no scientific studies have explored the elusive “try” factor, so we can’t know for sure whether it exists or what the biological underpinnings might be. However, we can explore some possible explanations by looking at the evolutionary background and behavioral biology of horses.

First, we need to find out whether horses can understand the importance of a moment and adjust their behavior to it.

There are certainly situations in the wild where a horse would put in extra effort, for example to escape from a predator or protect the social group from an intruder. The motivation in both cases is clear: these are important survival mechanisms.

The motivation for a horse to put in extra effort in a show jumping competition, however, is less obvious. There is no analogous situation in the wild where horses would put in that level of physical effort for something that isn’t immediately tied to their survival.

But horses compete with each other all the time, don’t they?

Well, not all the time, but if a particular resource such as food or water is scarce there can be competition over that resource. This is also tied to immediate survival and cannot be compared to show jumping where the benefits to the horse, if any, are less clear.

Given this, it is therefore not likely that the “try” factor is part of a horse’s natural behavioral repertoire.

Could it be a learned behavior then?

There is no evidence that horses have the cognitive capacity to understand what a show jumping competition is, let alone care about winning. While horses are incredibly intelligent, their intelligence is adapted to a life on the steppe. A mere 4,000 years of domestication has not had much impact on millions of years of evolution.

With that said, learning is by its very definition flexible and adaptive. Understanding your surroundings and adjusting your behavior accordingly is an important survival strategy.

An experienced competition horse may well have acquired cognitive and physical skills over the course of its career to accurately navigate a variety of obstacles, which can manifest as putting in extra effort in certain situations. In fact, there’s ongoing research that looks at how horse-rider-pairs navigate jumps together, which may shed some light on this down the road.

In addition, a horse that is perceived to “try” a bit harder may be responding to aids from the rider. In a competition, the rider will have a very different level of focus than during training at home. Adrenaline levels will be high, and aids will be given with a sense of urgency that may change the intensity and frequency from those given under regular circumstances.

On approaching a particularly big or difficult fence, the rider may—consciously or subconsciously—apply pressure from the driving aids (and maybe even vocal cues) to make sure the horse jumps successfully.

An experienced rider will be more adept at applying these aids in a correct way, making them more likely to get the desired response from the horse, and a well-trained horse will be more sensitive to this pressure and respond accordingly.

In combination with experience, skill, and fitness levels, this can then be perceived by the rider as the horse putting in that extra “try.” In contrast, a horse already working at full capacity will not be physically able to respond with increased effort, giving rise to the notion that some horses “try” harder than others.

Another factor that can influence a horse’s ability to respond to the rider’s aids is the overall stress levels. A competition is a very different setting than training at home, and most horses will experience the environment as stressful.

While some stress is beneficial from a performance perspective, too much stress will have the opposite effect. Horses that “try” are likely in a state where their stress levels are high enough to enable them to respond with physical effort, but low enough for them to still be able to process input from the environment and the rider’s aids.

These are some of the potential mechanism that may be at play when a horse “tries” for its rider. However, we must also consider the possibility that the “try” factor doesn’t exist at all.

Until we have scientific studies that measure it, the evidence for it is purely anecdotal. Personal experiences are notoriously sensitive to confirmation bias, meaning that once you start looking for certain things you will start noticing them more frequently.

It’s possible that what some riders perceive as “try” is just a manifestation of their appreciation for a particular horse: if you like a horse, you’re more likely to see the things it does in a positive light.

The idea that some horses will “try” that little bit harder also fits with our desire to view the horse-human relationship as a partnership, because it implies that the horse cares about the outcome of the competition as much as we do.

While this can be a nice thought, we must be careful not to base our interpretations of horse behavior on human notions. Horses experience the world differently and have different priorities in life than we do.

So, to sum up, what we perceive as a “try” factor may be a learned behavior that is a combination of experience, skill, fitness level and responsiveness to the rider’s aids, or it may not exist at all outside our imagination. Perhaps future studies will shed light on this matter, but until then, we should probably be cautious when using the “try” factor to describe performance and be aware of the caveats.

Do you have a horse behavior question for equine ethologist Renate Larssen? Send it to for consideration in a future column.

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