How do the world’s elite riders relate to their horses?

Researchers interviewed 36 international elite equestrian athletes from six disciplines about their relationships with horses.
© FEI/Lukasz Kowalski

Sport is an inevitably human-driven pursuit, so does this make horse sport exploitative?

Not necessarily, researcher Katherine Dashper noted in her 2017 paper in the journal Society & Animals. But it is suggestive of the potential for exploitation, leading to questions about the boundaries between the use and abuse of horses in sport, she said.

It is an uncomfortable and complex question, even more so when looking at the top tier of riders, given the commercial pressures that exist.

Rachel Hogg and Gene Hodgins, in a paper just published in the journal Animals, have delved into the nature of the relationship between horses and riders in elite equestrian sport.

The pair, with the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University in Australia, said the horse-rider relationship is fundamental to ethical equestrianism, in which equine health and welfare are core elements of sporting success.

Horse-human relationships have historically been romanticized, with the success of sporting horse-rider combinations attributed to a close relationship between the two, they said.

But elite equestrian sports differ from amateur equestrian sports, especially where an elite rider earns their primary income from riding and competing horses, and third-party sponsors and owners are financially invested in a horse-rider combination.

In their study, they interviewed 36 international elite equestrian athletes from eight countries and six equestrian disciplines about their relationships with horses.

The pair cast a light on what is often a highly complex relationship.

Top riders face the tension between the nature of the “partnership” between horse and rider, and the pragmatic pressures of elite sport.

Participants defined the connection between sporting performance and the horse-rider relationship in three distinct but non-static ways, either as pivotal to success, as non-essential to success, or as antithetical to success.

Many but not all participants described a strong horse-rider relationship as critical to their sporting success.

“The extent to which the relationship between horse and rider was seen as influencing sporting outcomes depended on how the partnership between horse and rider was conceived and understood,” the researchers said.

For one competitor, an ideal partnership was reciprocal and fair, yet she differentiated between affection-oriented partnerships and more mechanical forms of partnership in endurance riding, suggesting that “working together” was necessary for this discipline, but this did not mean a horse-rider interaction was “nice” or even necessarily ethical.

Other participants defined the partnership in more straightforward ways, linking it to a sense of teamwork and mutual focus between horse and rider that naturally facilitated sporting success and enhanced performances.

Some participants said they had successfully competed on horses with whom they were not familiar, but most described knowledge of the horse as a kind of competitive currency. The more time spent together, the better.

A range of “successful” relationships was deemed possible, including those of competition-oriented riders who viewed horses as objects.

However, to achieve longevity, reach the highest echelons of sporting performance, and “bring up multiple horses over long periods of time”, a partnership was non-negotiable.

Mechanical skill in some instances was positioned as more relevant than relationships in the upper echelons of the sport, but a distinction could be drawn between being “elite” and being at the very highest level of the elite sportsmanship category.

For example, one dressage rider endorsed the potential for elite performances to occur regardless of the status of the horse-rider relationship, noting, “I’m sure if you asked all the Grand Prix riders to swap horses I’m sure they would all be capable of swapping horses and riding a Grand Prix test.

However, she believed that effective, top-level combinations involved strong relationships. In contrast to this, other participants saw basic performances as impossible in the absence of a partnership.

It was suggested that the sum of the horse and rider may equal more than the sum of either individual.

Certain horse-rider combinations were acknowledged as possessing a connection that made them highly competitive, suggesting that horse-rider compatibility may in fact play a role in the partnership and in sporting success.

Participants also believed that in some instances sporting performances could be elicited through force rather than partnership.

One rider raised what the authors characterized as a critical ethical point about equestrian sport, namely the potential to abuse a horse’s willingness.

“Horses may be large, powerful animals, yet they are also vulnerable to domination, and their sensitivity to fear as a preyed upon species provides an avenue for compromising the integrity of horse-human relationships by eliciting performances in the absence of trust, confidence, respect, and harmony,” the researchers said.

Producing large numbers of horses through mercenary means may work in the short-term but was not typically conceived as sustainable across a lengthy career with horses.

As one rider said: “Some people think you can force a horse, and maybe you can for a short while, but not for a long period.”

Some horse-rider partnerships were characterized by the riders as less-than-ideal to the point that performance potential was affected. However, it had not stopped some riders from competing on such horses — a finding suggestive of the complexity of the relationship between the horse and rider, and performance success.

“While a partnership was often espoused as essential to sporting success, or at least one of a number of factors that may influence performance outcomes, participants also engaged with the notion that a personal attachment between horse and rider could be an impediment to success.”

The most compelling example of this came from an endurance rider, whose main competition horse meant a great deal to her. For this rider, it was considered a competitive disadvantage when competing against riders who did not value the lives of their horses. A strong relationship meant that, competitively, the rider understands their horse better, but this does not necessarily offset the benefits of a more mercenary approach to horses in endurance racing, she observed.

Some riders endorsed the possibility of competing successfully in the absence of a personal horse-rider relationship, though typically having a personal relationship was not seen as a disadvantage, even if it was not necessarily always an advantage.

However, it was also acknowledged that it can take years to produce a top competition horse in some disciplines.

“Critical to this discussion of sporting performances and horse-rider relationships is a sense of what is considered a successful performance,” Hogg and Hodgins said.

“For a number of participants, performance success was defined in accordance with the achievement of conventional markers of success, such as a high placing or mark, and/or winning a competition.

“However, a number of participants also defined success or performance outcomes in subjective terms. Indeed, it was not uncommon for participants to define sporting success without reference to competition outcomes, and according to their own personal experience of a performance.

“The most significant performance of a participant’s career was in some instances representative of a personal, rather than a sporting triumph.”

The authors continued: “It must be noted, however, that although participants often described sporting performances subjectively, when asked to consider the link between the horse-rider relationship and sporting performance, it was evident that ‘success’ was typically conceived in conventional terms, particularly when comparing the competitive orientation of different equestrian athletes. ”

Forming emotional attachments to competition horses engendered strong sporting performances in several ways, and in many cases, participants reported experiencing deep emotional bonds with their competition horses, particularly after working together for a long time.

However, emotional attachment was not uniformly positive, with some participants describing emotional detachment as a protective mechanism that could serve to reduce the stress and risks of elite sporting participation.

“Largely speaking, the relationship between horse and rider was experienced as a vital part of performance success in the current study,” the researchers said.

“However, ambiguous and contradictory views were expressed. Technical skills, physical strength, and contextual factors such as sporting discipline may in some instances outweigh the importance of a partnership, with some elite performances viewed as a product of talent and ability rather than a bond between partners.”

Some performances at the highest level of the sport were achieved in the absence of a partnership.

“Those participants who placed value on the relationship between horse and rider conceived it as a form of competitive currency; a way of compensating for other abilities, such as technical skills.

“In referring to deep attachment between horse and rider as a potential competitive disadvantage, participants brought into question the status of horses and the horse-rider relationship in modern equestrian sport.”

Urban myth, popular literature, and past scientific research have largely provided support for the notion that a strong, trusting relationship between horse and rider is integral to performance success, while the idea that those horse-rider combinations that possess the closest relationships are the most successful carries intuitive appeal.

Yet the modern sporting environment places significant pressure on the horse-rider relationship, and a range of factors may affect the success.

Discussing wider issues, Hogg and Hodgins noted that the “win-at-all-costs” mentality, although not necessarily widespread within equestrian circles, has manifested itself in shocking cases of horse abuse that serve to jeopardise the future of equestrian sports, the reputed “bond” between horse and human, and most importantly, the welfare of horses involved in the human pursuit for sporting success.

“Furthermore, competitive equestrian sports have been blighted by a range of practices with possible welfare ramifications for horses, including hyperflexion amongst dressage horses and soring among gaited horses — the practice of excoriating the skin using chemicals to encourage exaggerated movement.”

Despite being illegal under federal law, practices such as soring continue to pervade some equestrian sports, they said.

“Another particularly grievous practice is that of using chemicals or sharp objects to heighten the sensitivity of the horse’s legs while showjumping.”

In one extreme case, a competitor was suspended from showing and judging Arabian horses after it was found that seven of his horses had undergone cosmetic surgery aimed at improving their appearance based on competitive ideals.

The authors said equestrian athletes must be encouraged to act as gatekeepers of equine welfare and well-being, and to encourage this, the consequences of acting in welfare-conscious ways towards horses must be aligned with performance outcomes.

“Several participants described how their engagement with horses and sport had improved since making the decision to seek income away from equestrian activities as this had allowed them to draw a clear distinction between work and working with horses.

“Access to alternate sources of income may help to preserve the personal fulfilment participants often associated with their relationships with horses and may also be facilitative of stronger, more engaged experiences of sport and sporting performances.

“Equestrian athletes should bear responsibility for the welfare of their horses. However, it is incumbent upon the broader sporting community to create a sporting culture in which animal welfare and equine management are inseparable from high-quality performance outcomes and ethical horse-rider interaction.”

Hogg, R.C.; Hodgins, G.A. Symbiosis or Sporting Tool? Competition and the Horse-Rider Relationship in Elite Equestrian Sports. Animals 2021, 11, 1352.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.

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