Riders may look forward to an outing in the saddle, but their horses may not always feel the same way.
An investigation in Britain into horse behaviour during tacking-up and mounting delivered what the researchers described as disturbing results.
The study, reported in the journal Equine Veterinary Education, centred on 193 sports and leisure horses recruited from 11 locations, with both amateur and professional riders.
The researchers designed a protocol for documenting behaviour during tacking-up and mounting. It comprised 64 abnormal behaviours for tacking-up, and 30 for mounting.
The protocol was tested in a small pilot study and underwent subsequent minor modifications.
Behaviours ranged from biting, ears back, fidgeting and tail swishing, to head-tossing, staring, having the tongue out, nose rubbing and licking.
For the study, each horse was observed for about eight minutes by lead researcher Dr Sue Dyson while the animal’s history was taken. Each horse then underwent a careful, systematic palpation by Dyson of the region where the saddle sits, and behind the saddle, to detect sensitivity.
Each horse was observed by Dyson while the owners tacked-up and mounted as they normally would, during which she noted any abnormal behaviours under the protocol. Video footage was also taken to retrospectively time the display of abnormal behaviours, and also to check that observations were made consistently.
Tack type and saddle fit were also checked. Findings on the relationship between back sensitivity, saddle-fit and other factors, and the behaviours observed during tacking-up and mounting, will be published shortly.
The study team found that the most frequent number of abnormal behaviours during tacking-up was 10 out of 64, ranging from none to 33.
Of the bitted horses (just two horses in the study wore a bitless bridle), 16.8% were reluctant to open their mouth for the bit, and 67.0% were observed to repeatedly chomp on the bit or audibly mouth the bit.
Some tossed their head (12.4%), or lifted their head (10.9%) to avoid the bridle being put on.
The majority of horses (61.1%) had an intense stare (glazed expression), or put their ears behind the vertical (56.5%) during bridle placement.
The most common behaviours observed when a saddle was placed on the horses’ back were ears back (57.0%), an intense stare (53.9%), fidgeting (31.6%), chomping or playing with the bit (34.1%), tail-swishing (20.2%) and head-tossing (19.7%).
There was an equal frequency of abnormal behaviours during bridling and saddling in 52% of horses.
The study team reported that 34% of horses showed more abnormal behaviours during saddling than bridling, while 15% of horses showed more abnormal behaviours during bridling than saddling.
The duration of abnormal behaviours in relation to total tacking-up time was 25% to 75% in half the horses. There was excellent repeatability of the observations made in real-time compared with those made from the review of the video recordings.
Tail swishing was more frequent during saddle placement (20%) and girthing (34%), than bridling (10%).
Turning the head to the girth was seen only during saddle placement (in 11% of horses) and girthing (in 40% of horses). Five percent of the horses attempted to bite during saddle placement, and 15% attempted it as the girth was tightened.
Fidgeting was more common during saddle placement (32% of horses) and girthing (21%), than bridling (9%).
The most frequent number of abnormal behaviours during mounting (during which 90% of the riders used a mounting block) was 1 out of 30, ranging from none to 12.
Just over a quarter of the horses fidgeted during mounting, while 17.1% swished their tail, 16.8% chomped on the bit, 14% extended the thoracolumbar region, 12.4% yanked down on the reins, and 10.9% tossed their head. In all, 7.8% of the horses needed to be held.
When asked to walk forward after the rider had mounted, nearly all the horses were willing to do so.
Dyson and her colleagues acknowledged that any convenience sample had the potential for bias.
“Nonetheless, the sample represented a large variety of horses, from leisure horses to upper-level dressage and event horses, and provided some disturbing results.
“It is concluded that many of the behaviours described during tacking-up and mounting are different from those of the resting horse, and are consistent with behaviours associated with stress and/or pain.”
They should not be considered normal during tacking-up, the study team said.
“Such behaviours may reflect stress or anticipation of pain arising from oral lesions, the tack, or ridden exercise.”
There was a high proportion of ill-fitting saddles and saddles which moved abnormally during ridden exercise, with the potential to contribute to pain, the authors noted.
Indeed, during assessment of static saddle fit, 78.2% of saddles were identified to have the potential to compromise performance (more than half the saddles had not been checked by a saddle fitter for at least six months).
The majority had tree points that were too tight (66.8%). The next most common saddle fit problem was the pommel being too low.
“Further education of riders, trainers and saddle fitters concerning both saddle fit and abnormal behavioural signs during tacking-up and mounting is required,” the researchers said.
Turning to the clinical relevance of their findings, the study team said many of the behaviours observed were typical of those previously attributed to stereotypical behaviour, such as head tossing, tongue out, nose rubbing and licking, which are frequently stress-associated.
“Some behaviours may be a reflection of pain (e.g, ears back, intense stare, tail swishing). Biting and kicking have been considered as aggressive behaviour.
They said such behaviours may be exhibited in anticipation of musculoskeletal pain during ridden exercise, which may be associated with ill-fitting tack in some horses.
“Owners need to be made aware that these behaviours are not normal and may be a manifestation of underlying problems.”
The study team comprised Dyson, a lameness specialist and independent clinical consultant; rider and trainer Anne Bondi, who founded the Saddle Research Trust; Jenny Routh and Danica Pollard, former employees of the Animal Health Trust; and Tate Preston, Catherine McConnell and Julia Kidd, with the University of Nottingham.
An investigation of behaviour during tacking‐up and mounting in ridden sports and leisure horses
S. Dyson, A. Bondi, J. Routh, D. Pollard, T. Preston, C. McConnell, J. H. Kydd.
Equine Veterinary Education, 23 January 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/eve.13432