Many riders miss subtle signs of discomfort in horses being tacked up and mounted, findings suggest



Horse owners generally failed to notice more passive and less obvious behaviour issues when tacking up or mounting, researchers found.
Horse owners generally failed to notice more passive and less obvious behaviour issues when tacking up or mounting, researchers found. File image by Charlotte Yealey

The majority of owners involved in a just-published study were unaware that their horses showed behavioural issues during tacking up or mounting.

Equine orthopaedic specialist Sue Dyson and her colleagues said riders noticed the obvious signs, such as attempting to bite during saddle placement or girthing, or kicking at the abdomen during saddle placement, but generally failed to notice more passive and less obvious behaviours, such as chomping at the bit or rotating their ears back.

Owners, it seems, are less likely to recognise the subtle changes in facial expression and body language which are unlikely to cause them harm, the study team reported in the journal Equine Veterinary Education.

“For the majority of a comprehensive range of behaviours, the owners’ recollections of behaviour were also inconsistent with the veterinarian’s real-time observations,” the researchers reported.

The study involved 193 horses who were either undergoing pre-purchase examinations, being investigated for poor performance, or were recruited by invitation.

The owners were aware in advance that the primary aim of the study was to compare their historical observations of their horse’s behaviour during tacking-up and mounting with those of an expert.

Most of the horses, a mix of breeds, ages and disciplines, from pleasure horses to upper-level sports horses, were seen in their usual environment, or were competition horses used to travelling to different venues. All were in regular daily work.

Beforehand, each owner was asked whether they recalled if their horse showed abnormal behaviour when tacked-up or mounted.

If the response was yes, the owner was asked to describe their recollections of the behaviour.

Each owner was then asked a series of more specific questions, each requiring a yes or no answer, for each phase of tacking-up, putting on the bridle, placement of the saddle, girthing, mounting and moving off after mounting.

For example, did the horse paw the ground with a forelimb when the saddle was placed, or did it turn its head to the girth when the girth was tightened? If the owner said sometimes, they were asked whether the behaviour occurred more or less than 50% of the occasions when the horse was tacked-up and mounted, recorded as yes or no, respectively.

During the period when the answers to the questionnaire were being acquired, the horse’s behaviour was observed, so that changes from baseline behaviour could be recorded. Owners were asked to tack up their horses and mount as they would normally. Some horses were tied up, others were free in a stable, according to owner preference. The order in which the bridle and saddle were put on was recorded.

Each horse was observed during tacking-up and mounting by Dyson, who recorded the occurrence of each behaviour considered abnormal. Some owners, having been alerted to specific behaviours through the questionnaire, observed behaviours which they had not been previously noticing. For example, they might not have previously recognised that the horse put its ears back when the saddle was put in position.

Overall, 34.2% of owners reported behavioural abnormalities during tacking-up or mounting. However, the expert assessor observed behavioural abnormalities for more than 25% of the time taken to tack up in two-thirds of the horses.

Owners were reasonable at reporting the likes of their horse biting, putting its head up to avoid bridling, being reluctant to accept the bit, evading noseband tightening, lifting its head, or teeth grinding.

However, they generally performed poorly on more subtle signs such as staring, chomping on the bit, pinning their ears back, tail swishing, head tossing during girthing, yanking down on the reins immediately after mounting, and spontaneously walking forwards before a cue from the rider.

“Recognition of such behaviours is important, because abnormal behaviour during tacking-up and mounting may reflect anticipation of pain during ridden exercise,” the study team said. “We have previously reported a positive association between the number of abnormal behaviours during tacking-up or mounting with ill-fitting saddles, lameness either in-hand or ridden, and the presence of back muscle pain.’

“It is clear,” they continued, “that there are behaviours which occur commonly which are either interpreted as normal or which are not observed by owners.

“This has important equine welfare implications through the failure to recognise that many behaviours frequently demonstrated by horses are not ‘normal for horses’ but may reflect underlying discomfort.”

They suggested that welfare could be improved by further education in the equestrian industry in this area.

Do owners recognise abnormal equine behaviour when tacking-up and mounting? A comparison between responses to a questionnaire and real-time observations
S. Dyson, A. Bondi, J. Routh, D. Pollard, T. Preston, C. McConnell and J. Kydd
Equine Veterinary Education, 23 March 2021

The abstract can be read here

Previous related studies:

Dyson, S., Bondi, A., Routh, J., Pollard, D., Preston, T., McConnell, C., Kydd, J. (2021) An investigation of behaviour during tacking-up and mounting in ridden sports and leisure horses. Equine Vet. Educ. doi: 10.1111/eve.13432

Dyson, S., Bondi, A., Routh, J., Pollard, D. (2021) An investigation into the relationship between equine behaviour when tacked-up and mounted and epaxial muscle hypertonicity or pain, girth region hypersensitivity, saddle fit, rider position and balance and lameness. Equine Vet. Educ. doi:10.1111/eve.13440

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