A shift in thinking may help reduce the incidence of injuries among riders and handlers, an equine researcher suggests.
“There are many physical and psychological benefits associated with horse riding,” says Professor Natalie Waran, of the University of Edinburgh.
But she also cautioned against the risks, referring to injuries that can occur both whilst riding and during general handling.
“When looking at the reasons why these sorts of accidents happen, riders, owners, trainers, will often report that 70 percent of these accidents are due to behaviour and training of the horse rather than due to their own competence.”
Waran suggests a shift in thinking may help reduce the incidence of accidents, thus ensuring horse and rider safety.
Historically, she says, horse people have focused on ways to protect themselves during accidents, rather than addressing whether horses are ‘fit for purpose’ – in other words, horses properly prepared to do the jobs required of them.
“We wouldn’t put new drivers into a car with unsound steering and unreliable brakes, and yet we frequently see horses that may lack appropriate training of the basic stop and go aids being ridden by inexperienced riders,” Waran says.
Waran was joined by Dr Hayley Randle, of Duchy College, in Britain, in presenting a talk about evidence-based practice and learning in equitation to delegates at the recent annual conference of of the International Society for Equitation Science, held in the United States.
Much of what is done with horses is based on traditional methods, opinion, or even current fashion, but, according to Waran: “Just because these methods work, doesn’t mean they are necessarily right”.
Applying an evidence-based approach to horse management, training, and performance may help to eliminate practices that can harm the horses’ health, welfare, and therefore sustainability.
A 2008 Australian survey found riders, owners, and trainers had increasing concerns over welfare issues.
- The use of drugs to modify the behaviour of horses.
- The use of unconventional and questionable methods to control horse behaviour; for example, walking horses 10-12 hours straight or withholding water for 24 hours to prevent misbehaviour before showing.
- Using severe aggression or dominance mind sets to manage behaviour.
Thinking of how to change current behaviour towards horses, and their management and training, Waran recommended adopting approaches used in similar situations, such as animal welfare science.
Human behaviour can change when attitudes change, and this may be seen through responding to concerns about horse welfare.
Waran proposed that an evidence-based approach may help eliminate unsafe or risky practices.
The mutually shared desire of wanting what is best for the horse may encourage horse professionals to use the best available evidence to decide how they will achieve their training and management goals. Such an approach may also help challenge fashions or fads in horse training, such as the use of equipment that comes with no proof of efficacy, only subjective personal endorsement.
Waran challenged all horse owners and riders to consider how they placed the welfare of the horse before any other motivation or goal, and therefore how equitation can be “future-proofed” for a sustainable industry.
She suggested that the answer lay in encouraging a more questioning approach to equitation.
Randle added: “You can only manage what you can measure”, asserting that there was a need for the horse industry to focus on ways to measure and record inputs related to the rider and/or equipment as well as the horses’ responses.
Randle explained some of the evidence-based tools currently available, such as rein tension, saddle, poll, and noseband pressure-measuring devices.
She also touched on the ability to assess methodologies and environments for training, as well as the increasing scientific focus on the rider’s position, their physical effect on the horse, and how coaching the rider’s psychological state also impact on the horse.
“The great thing about science is that every time you get an answer, or appear to be getting an answer … you find that you have generated a multitude of other questions.”
Randle suggested the outcomes of equitation science research can lead to the development of a more easily understood shared language between coach and rider, which could help to eliminate horse welfare issues both in-hand and under saddle.