Favouring Positive Working Conditions to Improve Horses' Welfare and Human Safety

Wed, 02/15/2017 - 09:39
Health News

Working conditions are more and more pointed out as a main source of welfare impairment in horses, leading to an increased risk of aggressiveness and dangerous behaviours. Promoting positive educational techniques and, most importantly, being attentive to the horse’s behaviours and postures as only reliable signals of its welfare state will lead to a positive perception of both human and work and thus increase both horse’s welfare and human’s safety at work.

Researchers Lesimple and Hausberger of the University of Rennes presented the following abstract at the 2016 International Equitation Science Conference in Saumur, France, on 23 - 25 June 2016.

Favouring positive working conditions to improve horses’ welfare and human safety

 From early on in the domestication history of horses, their relationship to humans has been largely centred on a working relationship through harnessing and riding. Archaeological studies trying to evaluate when horse riding first occurred are largely based on examination of the animal’s teeth and spine, both showing traces of bit actions and rider’s weight on the back respectively. Thus, work does affect the horse’s body but the question remains of whether this is so that horses’ welfare may be altered both during the working sessions and/or in a more chronic way with consequences outside work. Here we will review the existing evidence of the potential effect of work on the overall welfare state of horses and try and identify the behavioural indicators of discomfort at work as well as the indicators of work related problems outside the working situation. We will end with positive practices that may favour the horse’s good perception of working time and thus enhance human security.

Work as a source of physical problems:

 Working conditions may be source of physical impairments. In particular, the use of unfitting equipment is recognized as a primary source of body lesion, going from simple hair removal to real wounds under particularly extreme conditions. However, in addition of such highly visible physical marks, deeper lesions may not be that easy to identify. Anatomical as well as physical examinations, imagery or electrophysiological studies all converge to reveal a high prevalence of back disorders in riding horses, which could explain for some part some of these welfare problems. Thus, musculoskeletal disorders at the back level have been identified in the past as one of the main reasons for culling horses, with working conditions identified as amongst the primary causes of such disorders. Veterinary studies were the first to explore the impact of working conditions on horses’ skeleton and biomechanics, highlighting that the prevalence, type and localization of spine disorders differed according to the type of work performed by the horse. However, even if recognized as a major source of welfare impairment for working horses, these disorders remain strongly under-identified by owners and caretakers and horses often keep being used despite the discomfort or pain.

Work as a source of behavioural problems

 In addition to physical stress, there is a growing evidence that psychological and emotional stress may be associated with work in this species, in particular in the case of improper riding techniques or due to some disciplines’ specificities. Show horses, and especially dressage horses, were shown to exhibit higher emotional levels during experimental tests than unbroken or leisure horses. More recently, it was shown that the type and prevalence of abnormal behaviours performed in the box differed according to the type of work.

Work as a source of postural problems

 Working conditions may also have strong consequences on the horses’ posture outside working time. Recent studies comparing riding school and leisure horses revealed that constraining working practices led to a global “flatness” of the horses. When diving deeper into this postural study, the difference was particularly important at the level of the horses’ neck, with riding school horses presenting a hollow neck, whereas leisure horses had a round neck. In some extreme cases, riding school horses were even too stiff to obtain a regular neck flexion.

Potential causes of welfare impairment

One of the first causes of welfare impairment for working equines is the equipment used. Thus, unfitted or un-adapted equipment may lead to body lesions (mouth, girth, withers) or damaging peaks of pressure at the level of the back. Extreme neck and head positions that are sometimes (more or less voluntarily) imposed to the horses when ridden may be, to a great extent, responsible of welfare impairment. In the first steps of riding learning, the riders’ hand actions and seat balance are often uncontrolled. The direct actions on the horses’ mouth (through the reins and bit) and back are likely to lead to harm the horse’s welfare. However, beginner riders are not the only one to put pressure on their horses’ musculoskeletal system: hyperflexion, sometimes used in show horses, also impacts horses biomechanics and lead to discomfort: when ridden with an extremely flexed neck, horses tried to avoid the pressure and display more conflict and defence behaviours than when they are ridden in a natural head-neck position. In addition to physical constraints, extremely bended postures lead to an increased emotionality, with more startles and unwanted behaviours. Riding techniques do affect horse’s head and neck position and hence muscular tensions over the whole spine and in particular the thoracolumbar area. If riding techniques are inappropriate, they may therefore repeatedly affect the thoracolumbar system and lead to potential chronic back disorders. When taken into account, working conditions appear amongst the three main reasons of welfare impairment.


As most horses are used in working contexts, it seem urgent to clearly identify reliable indicators of good or less good practices in terms of horses’ welfare. During working session, flight, fight and defence behaviours (e.g. opening the mouth, shaking the head, tail swishing, crabbing, abnormal oral behaviours...) indicate some sort of discomfort. In addition, working conditions may also have a strong impact on horses’ welfare at rest. Studies converge to show that increased emotionality, behavioural disorders and aggressiveness outside work may result from the type of work the horses are used for or the way it is performed. The neck shape as well the level of attention towards the environment outside working time, turn out to be useful to identify the presence and prevalence of back disorders.

Towards positive practices

Horses are in contact with humans from earliest age and from this proximity, they will develop a perception of humans, associated to positive or negative emotions. From the beginning of breaking, it is possible to facilitate the setup of a positive perception of humans, and, by association, of the work related context. Thus, promoting the use of positive reinforcement since the first step of a young horse education to the later learning tasks, not only improves the learning process, but also the human-horse relation. When being mounted, it is also crucial to take into account the horse’s signals of welfare impairment: recent studies showed that, when allowed to, horses clearly avoid the tension applied in their mouth through the bit or extreme postures (e.g. rollkür). Making the right choices, in terms of life conditions, working conditions, behavioural knowledge and choice of horses is the first step of horses’ welfare and human security improvement.

Source: ISES - Photo © Dirk Caremans

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