Groundbreaking research paves way for improved horse and rider welfare

15 December 2022

She's the first researcher to prove a link between horse welfare and rider safety' and CQUniversity PhD candidate Karen Luke's work is in hot demand as equine sports face unprecedented pressure.

One of her papers has been named in the top-five most downloaded articles in Applied Animal Behaviour Science in 2022' with more than 7000 paid downloads highlighting the interest in her groundbreaking work.

The Melbourne-based psychology and animal welfare researcher published the piece with CQU co-authors Dr Tina McAdie and Dr Bradley Smith' and Amanda K Warren-Smith from the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Ms Luke said the study set out to address knowledge gaps about the relationships between ridden horse behaviour' horse welfare and rider safety.

"More Australians are killed every year by horses than any other animal' so understanding preventable causes is truly life-saving work'" she said.

"For a long time scientists have speculated that better horse welfare would lead to better safety for riders' but mine was the first study to provide data to show that there is a link.

"Riders themselves have an interest in improving safety' so I deliberately wrote the paper in a way that most people could understand it' not just scientists."

The study of 427 human participants found their experience of rider accidents and injuries were significantly positively correlated with ridden hyperreactive behaviour from the horse.

"Put simply' what I found was that injuries happened when horses were acting out' and they were acting out when they were hurt' or stressed' or in pain'" she explained.

"If this was a person' we'd be worried about their mental health and wellbeing.

"My research showed when horse welfare is poor' that's when riders are getting hurt – and things like spurs and whips don't make riding safer.

"The research' and how the participants self-reported their experience' demonstrates it is possible to develop tools that are sensitive enough so that riders can detect subtle changes in their horse's welfare that may predict danger in the saddle."

Ms Luke's work comes as the FEI Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission' established by the peak international body for equestrian sports' works towards its final report due in 2023.

The commission was established in response to growing public pressure about poor horse welfare in equestrian sport.

"Horse welfare activists are really pushing to highlight poor ridden horse welfare as we lead up to the Paris Olympics in 2024' even to the point of trying to get equestrian sport thrown out of the Olympics'" Ms Luke said.

The paper is also the subject of more than 800 social media mentions and interactions' and is in the 99th percentile for social media for all papers published in the past 12 months' and the 96th percentile for citations.

Australia's $9 billion horse industry sees approximately 20 people a year die in horse-related accidents. Equestrian sport is dangerous for horses too' with at least 149 horses killed on Australian racetracks alone in 2020-21.

Ms Luke's PhD research' Unravelling the riddle of rider safety in the horse industry' highlights opportunities for systemic change that deliver improvements for both riders and horses.

"Horses are economically and culturally important to Australia and Australians' so creating a sustainable future for the industry is a priority – a key to creating an ethically sustainable horse industry is to transform from an industry focused on production to an industry focused on persistence.

"Australia has an opportunity to lead the world in making this shift that would bring the industry in line with community horse welfare expectations."

Watch Ms Luke present her research on improving horse welfare and rider safety for the 3 Minute Thesis research communication competition here.