Uncertainty Management Theory & Horses

All of us have experienced uncertainty at some point. Uncertainty is so common within our daily lives that many of us can probably think of a few different times today that we felt uncertain. How do you typically respond to uncertainty? Have you ever paid attention to how others respond to uncertainty? Have you ever thought about how your horse responds to your uncertainty? Or the uncertainty they may be experiencing themselves? This post will dive into Uncertainty Management Theory and how it can be applied to the partnership between humans and horses.

What is Uncertainty?

  • The idea that all information is subject to uncertainty and that it is inherent to the current society, to the idea that uncertainty evolves from the inability to organize information (Babrow, 2001)
  • A reflection of oneself as it exists when an individual believes that they are uncertain (Brashers, 2001)

Both of these definitions imply that the individual experiencing the uncertainty can manage and change it when equipped with the appropriate skillset. Researchers have looked at uncertainty in many different contexts, but exploring uncertainty in human-animal relationships from a communication perspective is a new approach.

Experiencing uncertainty can bring about a wide variety of reactions across different individuals and situations. The way that individuals interpret the knowledge is determined by the context it is interpreted in. It is the context then determines the reaction experienced by the individual, whether that reaction be positive, negative, neutral, or combined (Brashers, 2007). In our relationships with our horses, both the horse and the human will experience uncertainty.

Uncertainty Management Theory & Horses

Uncertainty Management Theory goes beyond studying initial interactions between individuals and can be applied to many different situations that create a sense of uncertainty (Bradac, 2001). The uncertainty experienced can be uncertainty about the environment or situation an individual is experiencing and/or uncertainty about the individuals themselves on a physical, personal, or interpersonal level (Thau et al, 2007). Although this theory is based on human experience, I would argue that perhaps the horse experiences similar uncertainty. Horses, as prey animals, are constantly thinking about their safety within a situation because instinctually it could mean life or death. Uncertainty about what is happening or of a particular environmental cue triggers a certain behavior in the horse to reduce the uncertainty or to protect them from an impending danger (as in fight, flight or freeze responses). 

Uncertainty can take on so many different forms, and it must be met with many different coping mechanisms, not just those that lead to a reduction of uncertainty (Babrow & Kline, 2000). These coping mechanisms allowed individuals to reduce, increase, maintain and/or adapt to the uncertainty they experience (Brashers, 2001). Some individuals try to gather more information to increase or decrease uncertainty and some choose to avoid learning more information for the same reasons (Kosenko et al, 2014). With horses, the behavior displayed as a result of uncertainty is often a result of the relationship they have with the human they are working with, their training, history, and the other horses, if any, with whom they experience it. Their coping mechanisms are learned behaviors often created by prior experiences. For instance, imagine two horses that are uncertain about a flapping tarp in the arena. The first horse has been exposed to tarps and has worked with his human on walking over them, dragging them and even going under them. The second horse has only been exposed to a tarp one time and it happened to be right as he was walking in to get his spring shots from the veterinarian.  These horses will have different methods in coping with the uncertainty of the tarp based on the different past experiences. In many cases, when encountering uncertainty, in this case, a tarp in a new place, a horse will spook and then go back later to the novel object to explore it further. The spook is an avoidance of the object (usually running away from it) to reduce uncertainty, whereas the return back to it is seeking additional information to reduce that uncertainty. 

Another way to gather or avoid information to manage uncertainty is by interacting with different support systems. Outside support systems influence how people experience and manage their uncertainties; therefore, social skills play a role in how one is able to manage uncertainty. These support systems, in the form of a healthy relationship with an individual or group, can be emotional support or can take the role of manipulating the situation to alter the uncertainty felt by the person in the situation (Brashers, 2001). If the horse encounters uncertainty on their own, they may react differently than if a human was present based on the connection they have with that human. Many trainers talk about teaching the horse to think, and perhaps a part of teaching a horse to think is teaching a horse to cope with uncertainty.

It is important to remember that individual people and horses experience uncertainty in different ways. How does your horse cope with uncertainty? Do they seek out information? Or run away from it? What about support? And once you have thought about that, how do you cope with uncertainty? Are there similarities between you and your horse?


Babrow, A. S. (2001). Uncertainty, value, communication, and problematic integration. Journal of communication, 51(3), 553-573.

Babrow, A. S., & Kline, K. N. (2000). From “reducing” to “coping with” uncertainty: Reconceptualizing the central challenge in breast self-exams. Social Science & Medicine, 51(12), 1805-1816.

Bradac, J. J. (2001). Theory comparison: Uncertainty reduction, problematic integration, uncertainty management, and other curious constructs. Journal of Communication, 51(3), 456-476.

Brashers, D. E. (2001). Communication and uncertainty management. Journal of communication, 51(3), 477-497.

Brashers, D. E. (2007). A theory of communication and uncertainty management. In B. B.Whaley & W.Samter (Eds.), Explaining communication: Contemporary theories and exemplars (pp. 201–218). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kosenko, K. A., Harvey-Knowles, J., & Hurley, R. J. (2014). The information management processes of women living with HPV. Journal of health communication, 19(7), 813-824.

Thau, S., Aquino, K., & Wittek, R. (2007). An extension of uncertainty management theory to the self: the relationship between justice, social comparison orientation, and antisocial work behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1), 250.


4 thoughts on “Uncertainty Management Theory & Horses

  1. Hi,
    I’d just like to say that I think your blog is extremely interesting. I was doing some research on social media profiles of Equine Welfare Organisations and I came across your page. I’m currently working with an NGO called Samabhava.( https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=400511127265421, http://samabhava.org/cms/ ) and I’ve been trying to figure out different ways to raise money for the Equines. Equine assisted therapy isn’t an option because some are injured and because of temperament issues. Any suggestions?


    1. Thank you! Samabhava looks like an amazing organization. Perhaps you could contact other organizations that have similar missions to see what has worked the best for them? The video you shared could also be an awesome tool to raise awareness and funds!


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