UPenn Eye Contact

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By Maddy Butcher Gray

A recent University of Pennsylvania study measured catch-ability in horses as it relates to human-horse eye contact. After developing formulas and performing weeks of experimentation, researchers found it really didn’t matter if you made eye contact or not. Read UPenn abstract here.

Only deep in the summary was what horse folk knew all along: Bringing a horse out of the pasture involves more than just looking at him. It has to do with attitude and approach.

“It became evident to us that the human handler’s body posture and head posture, as well as stride” likely impacted the success or failure of each approach.

UPenn researchers may have meant well. They may have been trying to disprove methods espoused by trainers like Monty Roberts. He says to avert your eyes whenever approaching a horse.

Sure, that might work.


With some horses.

UPenn researchers knew Roberts was putting out some questionable stuff. They made a good case for disproving his method.

But let’s face it, Roberts’ methods hold as much water as a sieve. His post on catching horses is laughable, not helpful or informative. Punching a new hole doesn’t enlighten us much. 

As it happens, Martin Black wrote about catching a horse in recent issue of Eclectic Horseman. He never mentioned a word about eye contact.

“A friend of mine once said to approach a horse like you have a full glass of water balancing on your head. If you think about not spilling the water, your feet will be softer, smoother, and more acceptable to the horse…If the way you walk toward him doesn’t feel good to him, he won’t be expecting anything better next time.”

The researchers would have made a better contribution by quantifying Black’s technique or at least quantifying the other aspects of approach.



  1. I think you should do what works and worry less about what other people reccomend. I have one pig of a horse that likes to play games with me. He is bribed: I use peppermints – crinkle the paper, have one myself, he comes up I hold out the halter, he puts his head in and puts in on himself,he gets the peppermint. The other two, no problems – I walk up to them or just call them up and they are just plain happy to see me. I don’t worry about body posture, language, eye contact, nope I’m just happy to see them and I think they are happy to see me.

  2. I think many will agree that if you and your horse began at the beginning by getting the relationship right, by allowing the horse the choice of whether to trust you or not before you did anything else, then “catching” simply isn’t an issue. You need merely to call them down and they will come. Because you are part of their herd, part of their life. Via their choice, not yours.

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