Researchers have suggested some elite jumping and dressage horses may not be sufficiently prepared for competition, after observing high levels of conflict behavior during competition.
Researchers from Poland and Ireland conducted a study in which they monitored conflict behaviour in 150 elite jumping and dressage horses via FEI TV.
Aleksandra Górecka-Bruzda, from the Polish Academy of Sciences, and her colleagues said conflict behavior was a response from animals that experience difficulty coping with mental or physical discomfort. It was most often demonstrated as some form of resistance to handling or training cues and/or equipment.
They noted that the FEI’s code of conduct for horse welfare stipulated that horses must only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and level of maturity for their respective disciplines.
For the study, the researchers used FEI TV to monitor conflict behaviors in 100 showjumping horses and 50 dressage horses, all competing in elite competitions.
They noted specific conflict behaviors in each horse, including head shaking, pulling the reins out of rider’s hands, gaping, and tail swishing.
They also looked for any associations between conflict behaviors and the type of fence being jumped. Similarly, they looked for associations between conflict behaviours and particular dressage movements.
The researchers, whose findings have been published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, also monitored the percentage of time each horse presented with a low head position and with the nose behind the vertical.
They described the level of conflict behavior observed in both disciplines as high, with pulling the reins out of the rider’s hands found to be the most common conflict behavior noted among the showjumpers. Vertical and combination fences appeared to be the more problematic obstacles, based on noted conflict behaviors.
In dressage, tail-swishing was most frequent, while other conflict behaviors occurred only sporadically.
Although tail-swishing was seen significantly more often during the more complicated dressage movement phases, there were no differences in the occurrence of conflict behaviors in particular movements within the groups of more and less complicated phases.
Dressage horses were ridden more often in a low head position and with the nose behind the vertical compared to showjumping horses, they found.
The percent of time with head in low position and the nose behind the vertical were positively correlated, they found, although there was no relationship between these parameters and the occurrence of conflict behaviors in either jumping or dressage.
“However, the high incidence of conflict behavior observed in elite jumping and dressage competition suggest that many horses may not be sufficiently prepared for competition in line with the FEI code of conduct guidelines,” they wrote.
“Clearly, this could lead to welfare concerns for the horses within these equestrian disciplines.
“We suggest that the occurrence and/or the extent of conflict behavior exhibited by horses participating in elite jumping and dressage sport requires further scrutiny in terms of the FEI code of conduct guidelines.”
Górecka-Bruzda was joined in the research by Izabela Kosińska, Zbigniew Jaworski, Tadeusz Jezierski and Jack Murphy.
Conflict Behavior in elite show jumping and dressage horses
Aleksandra Górecka-Bruzda, Izabela Kosińska, Zbigniew Jaworski, Tadeusz Jezierski, Jack Murphy
The abstract can be read here.