Challenges in keeping competition horses happy explored in British study

The complex network of demands around competition horses can result in pressure on the horses themselves.
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Conflict between the demands of competition and the needs of the horse has been identified as a key welfare challenge in equestrian sport.

The world governing body for equestrian sports, the FEI, is clear that the welfare of the horse is paramount and must never take second place to competitive or commercial influences. However, there is growing unease about welfare issues from both within and outside the sport.

Researchers in Britain, in a study just published in the journal Animals, set out to understand stakeholder perceptions of current welfare issues within equestrian sport, determine whether there is scope for change, and explore attitudes towards welfare assessment.

They pulled together 48 participants — 38 from equestrian sport and 10 who worked in animal welfare research — for a workshop that included welfare-related presentations and focus group sessions.

The six focus groups comprised four equestrian discipline-specific groups (Endurance, Showjumping, Dressage and Eventing), one mixed equestrian sports group (for other equestrian disciplines including racing, western riding and polo), and one group of welfare/research staff.

The authors noted that scientific thinking about what welfare represents has advanced significantly in recent years, with biological functioning, a natural lifestyle, interactions with humans and the animal’s resultant mental state all deemed important.

Analysis of discussions within the focus groups revealed that the participants understood the conflict that arose between competition demands and the needs of the horse, viewing it as a central welfare challenge.

Tamzin Furtado and her fellow researchers found that although the physical health of equine athletes is closely monitored, the horses’ psychological needs are sometimes overlooked.

“Participants recognised that improving competition practices may not be as impactful as improving the general management and training of horses,” the study team reported.

The participants preferred the term “quality of life” to “welfare”, which they felt had negative connotations.

“Participants appreciated the idea of incorporating formal welfare assessments into their training and competition plans but stated that existing tools are rarely used and are not deemed feasible for real-life conditions,” Furtado and her colleagues reported.

Group members considered the underlying issues affecting sport horse welfare to be broadly similar across equestrian sports.

The focus group data clearly described how the evolving perception of horses’ needs is leading to a change in the way in which some stakeholders view equestrian sport, and that this may impact societal acceptance and the social licence to operate.

The complex network of demands around competition horses can result in pressure on the horses themselves.
© Al Crook

“This conflict was described as most apparent when the horse was part of a commercial equine business, as is often the case for competition horses who may be bred, trained, competed and cared for as commodities by a complex network of stakeholders.”

When horses are produced as part of a professional system, participants felt that there is sometimes a need to push horses harder, or more quickly, than might otherwise be ideal, for example, to prepare them for young horse classes, or when moving up to higher levels of competing.

As one dressage rider commented: “We all choose our own line, how far we’re prepared to push. It’s incredibly important we know when to stop.”

The complex network of demands around competition horses was perceived to result in pressure on the horses themselves, leading to, for example, horses being pushed into competition before they are ready.

“Participants described themselves as needing to speak up and be the ‘voice’ for the horse, stating that it is their job to protect horses from the demands of competition by making individual decisions about what they think is, or is not, acceptable for each horse.”

Focus group members described an inherent sense of responsibility around involving non-human animals in human sports.

“Equestrian sports are traditionally built on the assumption that horses are consensual partners in sporting disciplines, but participants in the focus groups recognised that there may be conflict between human and equine choices regarding participation,” the authors noted

One participant in the welfare/research focus group described the discussion around the issue as heartening. “I think it is important we take the horse’s preferences into account,” they said, “but there’s a risk the horses would say no. In terms of social licence, maybe that’s an important discussion to have.”

The view that the psychological health of sport horses is an area of significant welfare concern was discussed across groups.

Turning to the social licence to operate, participants felt it was nuanced differently depending on the audience. Many equestrian sports face pressure from within the equestrian community rather than from the general public. It was felt that, while the public has views on what is or is not acceptable, those views are not always representative of the things that are “real” issues in each sport.

One participant in the mixed group commented: “The things mentioned in other disciplines — whips, spurs, tight nosebands — these were all things seen in the public eye that come to the attention of the public as signs of negative welfare and while rightly so, it almost takes the spotlight off the other 23 hours of the horse’s lives and how they are being managed the rest of the time when they are not in the public eye.”

Participants generally acknowledged the considerable progress made in equestrian sport in recent years, citing whip restrictions in racing, the ban on hyperflexion in dressage, a reduction in inappropriate feeding practices in leisure horses, and increased awareness of the importance of turnout and socialisation.

“My own experience, despite the worries and concerns, there is cause for cautious optimism,” said one participant. “The attitudes of owners now compared to attitudes 20 years ago, there’s been a marked improvement. There needed to be, but I do think a lot of work has been done, so there’s cause for some optimism.”

Looking at ways to improve equine welfare in competition, participants discussed a range of ideas, including showcasing positive welfare, providing better education for grassroots competitors and judges/stewards, giving support to stakeholders who air welfare concerns, and making use of the social license as a catalyst for bringing about positive change.

Discussing their findings, the researcher said it is unlikely that any changes made to regulations governing equestrian sport at competitions would have positive impacts on wider equine management issues in a horse’s home environment.

Participants had suggested that elite equine athletes were more likely to have a better standard of health, fitness and nutrition than those competing at a lower level, and that they would score positively on any health-related welfare measure.

Conversely, horses competing at a lower level were considered to be more likely to be ridden in ill-fitting/unsuitable tack and equipment. Additionally, they were more likely to be managed/ridden by less knowledgeable/experienced owners and riders, but were often managed in a way that better provides for the behavioural needs of the horse.

“Further exploration of the potential differences in welfare issues/standards for horses competing at the various levels is needed,” the study team said.

The authors said several important themes emerged in relation to assessing the welfare of equine athletes.

Many participants recognised the importance of meeting both emotional and physical needs, understood that both positive and negative affective states should be considered, and believed that assessment of whether a horse has a life worth living should be conducted over a prolonged period.

“Our study shows that how the horse feels (its affective state) is not typically at the forefront of most participants’ thoughts in relation to competitive performance, although it is considered in other contexts,” the authors said.

Participants suggested initiatives such as stewards observing the warm-up arenas to ensure that horses are ridden appropriately, but they spoke less frequently about providing horses with opportunities to experience positive affective states and, therefore, experience good welfare during competition.

“Avoiding/reducing negative affective states without providing opportunities to experience positive affective states can, at best, achieve a state of neutral welfare.”

The promotion of positive welfare at competitive events could be one way to support welfare improvement, they said, given that competitive success is a key motivating factor.

“For example, more deeply embedding measures of positive welfare into scoring could encourage competitors to implement change. The challenge is identifying what signs are indicators of positive welfare and communicating this to stakeholders.”

The researchers said issues relating to equine welfare at competitive events must be addressed to improve both the competitive experiences of the equine athletes and public perceptions of equestrian sport.

“However, as was noted repeatedly by participants, improvements in equine management and training are likely to have greater impacts on improving the welfare of equine athletes.

“Conflicting priorities of the different stakeholders, the demands of competition and the needs of the horse may result in compromised welfare,” the researchers concluded. “Current welfare assessment tools were not considered suitable for use in practice by stakeholders, so new approaches must be developed using a participatory process.”

The study team comprised Furtado, Rebecca Smith and Gina Pinchbeck, all with the University of Liverpool; Liane Preshaw and Jan Rogers, with The Horse Trust; Jo Hockenhull and Sue Horseman, with the University of Bristol; Jennifer Wathan, with The Brooke Hospital for Animals in London; Janet Douglas, with World Horse Welfare; Danica Pollard, with the British Horse Society; and Carol Hall, with the National Equine Welfare Council and Nottingham Trent University.

Furtado, T.; Preshaw, L.; Hockenhull, J.; Wathan, J.; Douglas, J.; Horseman, S.; Smith, R.; Pollard, D.; Pinchbeck, G.; Rogers, J.; Hall, C. How Happy Are Equine Athletes? Stakeholder Perceptions of Equine Welfare Issues Associated with Equestrian Sport. Animals 2021, 11, 3228.

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

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