Do horses really enjoy jumping?

Eric Lamaze (Canada) and Nations Cup debutante Coco Bongo.
Canadian showjumper Eric Lamaze and Coco Bongo.

The jury is still out on whether horses like to jump or not, according to research from Poland, writes William James.

Many people connected with the equestrian world in some way insist that their horses just love jumping. And anyone who has ridden many horses over jumps whether show jumping, cross country or steeplechasing will tell you the same, although the enthusiasm varies from horse to horse.

Aintree racecourse.
Aintree racecourse. © Roger May

But there are people who insist that the forcing of horses to jump in any sport or with hunting is simply cruel. You are forcing the animal to do something that goes against its nature.

And it is true that if you examine the behaviour of horses in the wild, they will tend to run around objects they do not need to jump. But this may be overly simplistic. After all, domestic horse and rider have been happily jumping obstacles for millennia and even wild horses will tackle obstacles of necessity.

Researchers from Poland recently decided to try to get to the bottom of this debate once and for all by applying objective research techniques. And what their analysis shows seems to provide a partial answer.

The research was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour and specifically set out to decipher whether horses really are naturally motivated to jump. The research team examined 18 leisure horses and 16 sport horses (ie, horses well used to show jumping) in a free-choice situation when presented with various obstacles. Firstly, the horses were given two different potential routes with a “free choice” to get to some food. One choice sent the horses over an obstacle, whilst the other did not but was longer. The obstacle’s height was gradually increased to a maximum of 20 inches as different horses carried out the test.

The Grand National at Aintree.
Horses tackle the massive jumps of the Grand National at Aintree.

In almost 60 per cent of trials, the horses chose to trot or walk over the obstacle, with only 10% deciding to jump. And, unsurprisingly, the horses gradually chose to walk the distance rather than take the obstacle as the height increased. But by the time the maximum height was reached, 44% still took this route. The “sport” horses were more likely to take the jump route.

Of course, the Grand National, which was held at Aintree racecourse on April 11 this year, is probably the ultimate jumps racing test. It is certainly the world’s most famous and high-profile example. The great race also generates big passions on a “love it or hate it” type basis from spectating to horse racing betting. The animal rights lobby usually makes its feelings plain each year because the care is so high profile – and any fatalities make the case for the opposition. But at the same time, an estimated worldwide TV audience of 500 million people attest to the enduring popularity of what can justifiably call itself the world’s greatest steeplechase.

And from a horse jumping enjoyment viewpoint, it is remarkable how many fallers and those who have unseated their riders continue. They often do so for several fences and even an entire circuit on occasion, despite the fact that the Aintree course organisers have put in many places designed for horses to run out with ease once they have lost their jockeys.

Where does all this leave us? Well, the jury is still out and more research would be welcome in this regard. However, it perhaps needs to be finessed in some way. But it is certainly clear from the test that horses are not averse to taking on obstacles on their own accord.


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7 thoughts on “Do horses really enjoy jumping?

  • May 2, 2015 at 8:47 am

    I find it amusing when people come up with “what a horse likes” and what it does not like. They are individuals just like people. Somethings we like to do and somethings we would rather not do. If you spend as much time on the back of a horse as some of us do we actually can tell what a horse enjoys, and there is nothing better than sitting on a horse that would rather take you to a jump than go around it. Yes of course some just love jumping and in a free jumping situation you need to stop the odd one from trying to jump all day:)

    • May 5, 2015 at 10:45 am

      I have 1 OTTB made that loves to jump will drag you to a jump if it’s set up and she thinks you’re taking too long in warm up! Has on several occasions jumped 4ft+ field fence just to stand and eat grass on other side doesn’t usually go anywhere. Just I get home and she’s on wrong side of fence.

  • August 18, 2016 at 4:33 am

    I find its ok for a horse that enjoys and tolerates jumping to jump, as long as they aren’t pushed and are treated well. But I don’t really like forcing a stubborn or frightened horse to jump, if they don’t like it they don’t like it. Let them be.

  • August 28, 2018 at 9:47 am

    The issue with jumping that I think would make your horse not enjoy jumping is what your using for the obstacle. If your using a bit, spurs, crop, martingale, chain, or anything to cause the horse pain, he will not enjoy it. But as horses love to run, I think they would enjoy jumping if there is no pain behind the motivation.

  • June 18, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    I don’t like forcing a horse to jump if they are frightened, some horses have bad pasts and I wont want to remind them of bad times they have had. My horse love to jump, sometimes I hop on and he starts cantering towards the jump, and I let him take me over, he gets a thrill out of it, and his ears go forwards the whole time, his expression on his face seems excited and I think that only if you force a frightened horse to jump its cruel.

  • August 10, 2020 at 12:51 am

    This article isn’t very helpful at all. YES a sport horse who was TRAINED to jump WILL jump BECAUSE IT IS TRAINED TO. This proves NOTHING other than only horses who were trained, either by force or by good practice, will jump and even some of those would prefer not to so in a way it also proves that horses generally don’t care for jumping. I just find it laughable that they added “trained sports horses jumped” in their test, of course they jumped! it’s imprinted in their mind that is what they MUST do even if you give them freedom! Someone’s already taken that “freedom” away in their mind.

    • February 6, 2021 at 8:06 am

      That’s true, but on the same end if a basketball player was never exposed to playing basketball, would they still love to play basketball? Saying that a horse who was exposed to and trained to jump would obviously jump more than a horse that hasn’t been exposed is true but that doesn’t prove those horses don’t enjoy jumping. An a similar note, most trainers do not use harsh methods to train a horse to jump. There are obviously exceptions to the rule (the world has shitty people) but every horse I have trained to jump was never forced to with whips, spurs, or any form of physical force. Most horses, when steered to a jump by a rider and the rider asks with leg aids for them to jump, will jump the jump with absolutely no physical force from the rider. Even horses who have not been fully trained yet, will jump the jump when asked politely to do so. If they are not in physical pain, and their rider politely asks them to go over the jump, and they are physically capable of getting over the jump, they very happily go over it with little to no additional encouragement. I think they enjoy the mental stimulation that jumping brings them (especially in a world where they have little of it by nature of being in captivity) rather than the actual act of jumping itself. As long as we, as their riders and trainers, take care of them so that they are not in pain or discomfort, I don’t see an issue at all with jumping horses. We train dogs to sniff out drugs and to be eyes for people that can’t see, is it really much different?


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