“I’d never say it publicly”: Equestrian insiders raise horse welfare concerns in anonymous study

11 September 2023
A white-haired woman wearing a black singlet and black glasses looks upward.
Horse welfare expert and PhD candidate Karen Luke

A new study exploring how amateur equestrians define horse welfare has found amateur equestrians mainly focus on horse health, and rarely consider aspects of welfare such as the horse’s mental state.    

Anonymous interviews for the research highlight many practices across equestrian sport put horse welfare, and the animals themselves, at risk. 

The CQUniversity research focused on equestrian competitors in Victoria, and was led by Melbourne-based PhD candidate and horse owner Karen Luke. 

The study, published in the prestigious Animal Welfare science journal, follows Ms Luke’s groundbreaking work establishing a link between horse welfare and rider safety in 2022. 

The equine welfare expert was a guest speaker at the International Meeting: Collectif pour le Chevaux in Paris on the weekend (Saturday 9 September, 2023), a global initiative to facilitate the protection of horse welfare at the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Ms Luke explained this study was the first to compare the latest “Five Domains Model” for welfare assessment, that considers nutrition, environment, physical health, behavioural interactions (with both humans and animals), and animal mental state, with industry insiders’ understanding of horse welfare. 

“Reponses from the equestrian competitors and horse owners repeatedly showed that horses can receive excellent physical care, yet have poor mental state due to the way they have been trained,” Ms Luke explained. 

The study highlighted owners  often perceive unwanted or problematic horse behaviours as   “character flaws”, rather than considering the behaviour might be due to poor welfare. 

“Research already shows that horse owners can misinterpret horse behaviour, but issues such as aggression and bolting,  should be interpreted as welfare problems,” Ms Luke said.

When asked about horse welfare across equestrian sports, respondents were concerned about being identified, highlighting a reluctance to express their beliefs and experiences openly. 

Study participants  raised concerns such as  competitors cutting nerves in their show horses’ tails, so the horse can no longer tail swish (which would diminish their competition score), all-night lunging (working the horse in a circle) to drive better behaviour in the ring the next day, and over-competing young horses.

“We know, for instance, that tail swishing can be a sign the horse has musculoskeletal pain, so removing a horse’s ability to signal that is hugely detrimental to their welfare,” Ms Luke said.

“One description of five- and six-year-old horses that were worn out by sports such as racing and reining because of starting competition life at age two, , was heart-breaking: the respondent explained ‘They’re done…their joints are done, their heads are done, their brains are fried’.

“Yet minimising horse welfare concerns, by national and international bodies like the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) and Racing Australia, mean the public has very little idea of the true situation of horse welfare.

“The difference in private concerns compared to public statements in equine sports demonstrate the need for new solutions to measure and improve horse welfare, for the horse industry’s long-term future.”

The study co-authors were Dr Andrea Rawluk, Dr Tina McAdie, Dr Bradley P Smith and Dr Amanda K Warren-Smith.

Read the full article at Animal Welfare journal here