How to Become the Equestrian Your Horse Wants You to Be

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Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY TANJA BORNMANN

I love my horse.

I have seen these four words printed on your shopping bag, t-shirt, and car bumper sticker, and I know that you describe the relationship with your horse as a happy one – built on love and trust.

Like many other equestrians, you may truly care about your horse’s well-being, but can we all agree on what well-being (or ‘good’ welfare) really means and how it can be reliably identified in horses? It’s not only about feeding a proper diet, seeing the veterinarian and farrier regularly, and having access to a clean shelter. Well-being is also about creating environments for our horses in which they can make positive experiences and be happy [1]. And this may differ from what we think is good for them. 

Definitions of minimum horse welfare standards are based on the Five Welfare Domains Model of animal welfare [2]. These standards can provide a foundation to equestrians, but not everybody follows (and knows about) them. In addition, research findings have shown that some equestrians may have overconfidence in their subjectively perceived horse-related knowledge, which does not match their actual knowledge and skills (this is termed “Dunning-Krueger effect”) [3]. This can become a real problem when equestrians are convinced that they do the right thing, but may unconsciously and unintentionally harm their horses due to their knowledge gaps. That’s often the point when things begin to change for our four-legged partners …

That may be true, but how does this affect our horses? 

The answer is simple: Some horses ‘learn’ to adapt to situations in which their well-being is compromised due to our ignorance, unawareness, or tradition-based approach. But adapting does not automatically mean that they are coping well. Other horses show behavioural signs of reduced well-being, i.e., distress [4,5]. Overall, a proportion of horses suffer silently without their owners, riders, or trainers being aware. I am not talking about active abuse here, but being deprived from the small things in their lives that most horses need to be happy. Small things that some horse owners may not consider important. Do you seriously believe that your horse, an animal that lives in herds, is happy when he’s standing alone in his paddock (year after year) without another horse buddy to interact with?  

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

But my horse is quiet; he can’t be unhappy or stressed then, can he? 

Hiding discomfort or pain forms an essential part of a horse’s natural survival instinct [6]. Most horses try to quietly cope with mental or physical distress whilst others ‘communicate’ their reduced well-being through showing certain behaviours indicative of stress [4,5]; ‘conflict behaviours’ such as tail-swishing or teeth grinding, or ‘stereotypic’ behaviours such as stall-walking or weaving are just two types of indicators and a horse’s silent call for help. 

Why is this the case? 

Because some equestrians, including some professionals, do not possess sufficient knowledge of equine learning and behaviour. They don’t know how to correctly interpret signs of stress or pain in horses, which frequently manifests in certain behaviours (trust me, no fake news here, this information is based on the results of several scientific studies) [7,8,9,10]. These behaviours can range from withdrawn-like postures (depression), ‘bomb-proof’ horses, reluctance to move forward (e.g., ‘laziness’) or energetic (‘hot’, ’explosive’) horses, spookiness (e.g., ‘he’s testing you’, ‘he’s naughty’) and aggression towards humans and other horses (e.g., ‘he needs to respect you’, ‘he’s dominant’). 

Yet, we riders try to explain these behaviours by applying our human way of thinking (this is called “anthropomorphism” [11]), often misunderstanding what the horse is trying to tell us. For instance, almost 50% of active sport horses involved in one study were lame, but the lameness went unnoticed by their owners, trainers, and others working with those horses [7]. Yet, musculoskeletal pain is just one facet of compromised well-being that is often being overlooked. 

Okay, but I am not an expert. How can I know all this? I ask professionals for advice if I need any!

It is great to know that you are seeking advice from experts. However, I believe equestrians should already possess basic knowledge about horse management, behaviour, learning, and training before we purchase or lease a horse so we can make informed and horse-friendly choices on behalf of our four-legged partners. Numerous studies have confirmed that poor management choices, such as single and restricted turnout, traditional box stalls, reduced and/or irregular forage intake, and little amount of bedding, can negatively impact horse well-being and quality-of-life. The consequences can be lameness, sleep deprivation, and respiratory disease, for instance. Yet, we equestrians continue using certain management practices, gadgets, or training approaches without realising how this negatively affects our horses’ mental and physical well-being, even though information about their harmful effects is readily available. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

For instance, if your horse is constantly ‘hot’ and uncontrollable when jumping a course, using a stronger bit or ‘showing him who’s boss’ probably won’t fix the problem, although it might allow you to continue training and competing your horse at the show next week. Instead, why not look for the underlying cause of his behaviour? Is he in pain (e.g., musculoskeletal pain, that can also manifest in lameness and an ill-fitting saddle can cause rushing)? Does he receive enough turnout? Do I feed him too much? Is it a training-related problem and perhaps my or my trainer’s fault? 

I know it may be hard for a lot of equestrians to take a step back but, remember, you love your horse. Don’t you want the best for him?

Working with horses, no matter if you are an amateur or professional in your chosen field, means taking over the responsibility of caring for their well-being. They work hard for us, every single day. The least we equestrians can do is to ensure that we treat them fairly whilst they are under our care. 

Only when our four-legged friend is happy and healthy can he perform at his best and enjoy interaction with us. This requires knowledge: about what horses need to experience positive emotions, about how they tell us when they are unwell, and about when we must become their voice. 

The good thing is you can start to make a change today in your horse’s life. There is a whole world of undiscovered (and evidence-based) knowledge out there waiting to be explored and conquered by us equestrians. It may be a game-changer for you and, most importantly, for your horse. Your horses will thank you.


Tanja Bornmann is an equine scientist (MSc; University of Edinburgh, UK), equine consultant, and qualified riding coach. Through her business Academic Equitation (www.academicequitation.com; Twitter: @academicequitat), she educates equestrians about evidence-based horse training and management practices, equine learning, and behavior. Her research interests involve equine welfare and behavior, equitation science, and human-horse/horse-human interactions.


References: 

  1. Mellor DJ. Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” towards “A Life Worth Living”. Anim 2016;6(3):21. 
  2. Mellor DJ, Reid CSW. Concepts of animal well-being and predicting the impact of procedures on experimental animals. Improving the well-being of animals in the research environment. 1994 [internet]. Available from: https://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=exprawel 
  3. Marlin D, Randle H, Pal L, Williams J. Do equestrians have insight into their equine-related knowledge (or lack of knowledge)? In: McDonnell S, Padalino B, Baragli P, editors. Proceedings 14th International Equitation Science Conference; 2018 September 21-24 Rome, Italy p. 66.
  4. Fureix C, Beaulieu C, Argaud S, Rochais C, Quinton M, Henry S, et al. Investigating anhedonia in a non-conventional species: Do some riding horses Equus caballus display symptoms of depression? Appl Anim Behav Sci 2015;162:26–36. 
  5. McGreevy PD, Cripps PJ, French NP, Green LE, Nicol CJ. Management factors associated with stereotypic and redirected behaviour in the thoroughbred horse. Equine Vet J 1995;27:82e83.
  6. Torcivia, C, McDonnell, S. In-Person Caretaker Visits Disrupt Ongoing Discomfort Behavior in Hospitalized Equine Orthopedic Surgical Patients. Animals 2020;10:210.
  7. Dyson S, Berger J, Ellis AD, Mullard J. Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain. J Vet Behav 2918;23:47–57.  
  8. Lesimple C, Fureix C, Biquand V, Hausberger M. Comparison of clinical examinations of back disorders and humans’ evaluation of back pain in riding school horses. BMC Vet Res 2013;9:209. 
  9. Abbey A, Randle H. Equitation pedagogic practice: Use of a ridden horse ethogram to effect change. J Vet Behav – Clinic Appl Res 2016;15:80. 
  10. Bornmann, T, Williams, J 2021, ‘Investigating equestrians’ perceptions of horse happiness: An exploratory study’, poster presented at the 77th annual conference of the British Society for Animal Science (BSAS), UK, 12-15 April 2021.
  11. Bradshaw JWS, Casey RA. Anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism as influences in the quality of life of companion animals. Anim Welf 2007;16(1):149-154.
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