Let science save our sport
Updated: Jan 17
This article was written for Horses and People magazine - it was published in 2019.
The recent FEI Dressage World Cup legs in Amsterdam and Wellington treated us to a spectacle of some of the world’s most talented horses and riders, really pushing the boundaries of the sport. Along with the passage, piaffe, glitter, lights and ribbons, however, comes an inevitable wave of public opinion. On one hand, many celebrate the sport, seeing it as ‘ballet on horseback’, buoyed by Charlotte Dujardin and Vallegro’s Olympic successes. On the flip side, however, my social media feeds are being increasingly filled with images of grotesquely overbent horses in crank nosebands and tight curb chains doing the bidding of their ‘puppeteer’ riders.
Social opinion is fickle, powerful, and oh so very real. ‘If we don’t make real changes, the court of public opinion will bury racing’ commented Lee Freedman, an Australian thoroughbred trainer, following last year’s expose on the horrific treatment of retired racehorses in the Australian state of New South Wales. The ABC documentary, showing stomach churning footage of the undignified and cruel fate of once magnificent horses, sent shockwaves through the country. It caused many to question the very nature of racing, and to turn their backs on one of the nation’s most popular races – the Melbourne Cup.
The social license to operate – the unwritten contract with the public that makes practices acceptable - is very much developing in the equestrian domain and to think the concept of a social license is ringfenced to the top levels of equestrian sport is naïve and a huge mistake. All equestrians, every single one of us, must be very conscious of the iron fist of public opinion. Public commentary ranges from fury at excessive use of the whip (and it goes without saying that I am also one of the furious ones) to the groups that posture ‘use is abuse’, and that advocate for horses not to be ridden at all.
Over the past few years, I have found myself asking ‘am I doing the right thing?’ and after lots of soul searching, I had to admit that I didn’t know the answer. I don’t compete to a high level, or ask anything extreme of my horses, but was riding okay? I know that hidden behind my warm rugs, beautiful dressage saddle, bags of top-quality feed and gleaming coats is the fact that I am using my horses for my own pleasure. I am a predatory species and I climb onto a flight animal’s back and instruct it to run, jump, even swim, into places, and over obstacles, it wouldn’t choose to if left to its own devices. If the public judged my equestrian life, would I win the trial?
I desperately wanted to know the answer to my ethical dilemma, but finding it was easier said than done. I realized that so many equestrians had never thought about the morality of riding. They loved their horses passionately, but didn’t think twice about using gadgets, different bits, nosebands or spurs to get the results they wanted. Horses were consistently labeled naughty, lazy or crazy and certain (unhelpful) mantras repeated by trainers ‘horses that are on the aids don’t spook’, ‘ride more into the contact’, ‘use more leg when you slow down’ , ‘get him more round’ etc. etc. etc. People followed fashions and seemed happy to do what everyone else was doing, without really considering the horse in the process.
And then, so very luckily, I met someone different, a coach, who changed the course of my whole equine experience. She was a passionate advocate for equine rights, and a brilliant trainer. She introduced me to groundwork, and a training framework in which I could establish a language that my horses could better understand. She opened the door to the concept of Equitation Science, and I finally started to uncover the answers to my questions.
Equitation Science combines learning theory, biomechanics and ethology to better understand horse-human interactions. It is based on scientific research and practical horse training, and shows us how to train with horse welfare and ethics being absolutely paramount. Fast forward a few years and I am now studying a diploma and learning just how much I don’t know!
I am learning how the horse thinks and starting to understand how many, very common and ‘legitimate’ practices can cause significant conflict for our beautiful equines, who are built to be social, to graze and to run. With this sound base, I am then starting to piece together how best to manage and train a horse in order to create a world in which they know how to react, in which they understand what is being asked of them, and accordingly, feel free from confusion, fear and pain.
One of the central focuses of equine learning theory is the use of negative reinforcement, or the application and release of pressure. As riders, we are all taught how to apply pressure – think ‘leg, leg, leg and more leg’ , ‘pull to stop’, ‘take a contact’, but what tends to not be mentioned is when to release that pressure. Science tells us that it is the release of pressure that actually trains a horse, and so many conflict behaviours ranging from tail swishing to bolting are caused by people not knowing exactly when to release. With this in mind, it’s crazy that the release of pressure is not absolutely central to how we all learn to ride – in all too many cases, the inappropriate use of pressure results in the worst possible scenario – horses becoming dangerous and ending up in the same place as those discarded thoroughbreds.
What I’ve described above is just the tip of the iceberg, science has so much to offer us on how we strengthen the relationship and bond with our horses, how we train so they understand and ultimately perform better for us, and how we can keep them in a way that best suits their unique ethogram. By studying equitation science, and using it in my day to day interactions with my horses, I am making sure that I could face any public jury, and stand absolutely proud.
If we are equestrians, we all owe to our sport, our future riders, and ultimately our horses, to make sure that we continually strive for better - we need to make sure that we keep our precious public license to operate. What can you do today to make sure we pave the way to a sustainable future?