In an abstract recently published online, a group of researchers undertook to answer the question as to
whether “wither scratching is a more useful tool for relaxation compared with the common practice of neck patting.
In the study, 18 horses were exposed to 3 treatments, including control or no interaction, neck patting, and wither scratching, for one minute following a short obstacle course.” Several measurements were taken on each horse, including heart rate, heart rate variability as well as a variety of behaviors. It was determined that wither scratching produced a “significantly longer duration of relaxed-type behaviors” and “could be a useful tool to help a horse relax under saddle.”
Relaxation is important to both horse and rider, and a moment of relaxation can help to signal to the horse that he has done his job well. If scratching the wither helps us, as riders, give our horse a well-deserved moment to “let down,” then I, for one, say “kudos to science” for helping us to figure this one out.
Article: Thorbergson, ZW, Nielsen, SG, Beaulieu, RJ and Doyle, RE. Physiological and
Behavioral Responses of Horses to Wither Scratching and Patting the Neck When Under Saddle.
Journal of Applied Animal Welfare and Science, abstract pub. online March 2016,