With all we’re learning about rider’s effects on horse health, we might begin to wonder if it’s even ethical to ride at all. But don’t hang up your tack for good just yet, French behaviourists say. Rather, pay attention to signs of poor welfare and adapt your techniques to improve your horse’s well-being.

“Working conditions are being pointed out more and more as a source of welfare impairment in horses, leading to an increased risk of health problems, aggression, and dangerous behaviours,” said Clemence Lesimple, PhD, of the EthoS Laboratory of Human and Animal Ethology at the University of Rennes, in France.

“But we can promote positive educational techniques and, even more importantly, be attentive to our horses’ behaviour and postures as reliable signs of its welfare state,” she said. “This will lead to a positive perception of both humans and work, thereby increasing both the horse’s welfare and the human’s safety.”

Poorly fitting equipment is a primary cause of health and welfare issues in horses, Lesimple said during her plenary talk at the 2016 International Society for Equitation Science conference, held June 23-26 in Saumur, France. In her presentation, co-prepared by Martine Hausberger, PhD, also of the University of Rennes, Lesimple stressed the importance of checking the fit of saddles, bridles, bits, harnesses, and other tack.

“The use of (poorly fitting) equipment is a major source of body lesions, ranging from simple hair loss to real wounds in extreme conditions,” she said. “But even without considering actual visually detectable problems, poorly fitting equipment can cause significant musculoskeletal damage, which could partly explain the prevalence of back pain in riding horses.”

The way we work our horses can also cause behaviour problems, she added. Studies have shown that discipline often correlates with emotional reactivity or aggressiveness even outside of work, as well as stereotypes such as cribbing. Ethical riders should be aware if behavioural problems develop and adjust their riding styles accordingly to see if it contributes to improved behaviour, she said.

Owners can also look out for specific signs of poor welfare in horses, she added. For example, poor welfare is often associated with a “flat” posture in the stall, a sort of “depressed” look, said Lesimple, with the neck held at the same horizontal level as the back. These horses also tend to pay less attention to their environment outside work.

Other signs of poor welfare include fight-or-flight defence behaviours during work, such as opening the mouth, shaking the head, swishing the tail, bucking, etc., she said.

While it’s possible to improve the horse’s working conditions, the best approach is to practice good techniques and knowledge from the start, Lesimple said. “From the earliest stages of training, it’s possible to facilitate the installation of a positive perception of humans and, by association, of work-related content,” she relayed. Using positive reinforcement and understanding how the horse learns is especially critical at this stage.

“Making the right choices—in terms of life conditions, working conditions, behavioural knowledge, and choice of horse—is the first step in improving equine welfare and human security,” said Lesimple.