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.
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.
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.