To Ride or Not to Ride? The ethics of horse riding
Updated: May 18, 2021
This question is one posed by many in the horse world and is one that can cause much controversy and strong feelings on both sides. So I am going to give you my perspective and my framework for making this decision. My simple answer is, as in so many things….it depends!
First and foremost my own horses are part of my family; their health, safety and wellbeing is always the priority. They are loved and valued no matter what we are doing together, so whether I choose to ride them or not, this is my baseline. I do get a great deal of enjoyment from riding horses, so when do I find riding appropriate?
My first consideration is always the health, ability, fitness and strength of the horse, which comes in many guises:
Is the horse generally in good health or do they have any health conditions? If they do have any health issues; can they be resolved or if not, managed to a level of comfort? Any issues are going to increase their anxiety and decrease their desire to be ridden. I have a horse with a very delicate gut and he gets mild episodes of colic easily. If he was having an episode, the decision to not ride him is an easy one. Discuss ways to resolve the issue with your vet or how best to manage it, this may include medication, a dietary or management solution.
Does the horse have any existing or old injuries? If the injury was/is severe you may take the decision to retire your horse from riding permanently. If the injury is resolved or is able to be strengthened, discuss with your vet and physiotherapist how to best help your horse before climbing aboard. Old injuries that are resolved can still leave the area weaker than it would otherwise be, so give your horse the extra time and gentle exercise that is required to strengthen the area. Discuss this with your vet and physiotherapist as well as other bodyworkers involved in your horse’s care and find ways to protect the injury.
Is your horse fit and strong enough to be ridden and for the length of time that you want to ride? Would you go from couch potato to running a marathon in a week? No of course not! If my horse has had a period of time away from being ridden, I would start with some in hand exercise first. This helps to start strengthening the horse, but has the added benefit that they regain confidence in seeing new things. In traditional methods in the UK, horses are ridden in walk only for short periods of time on the roads for several weeks before increasing the amount of exercise. There is a reason this method has stood the test of time, this gentle exercise will start to build muscle, strengthen ligaments and tendons and (if your horse is barefoot) begin to strengthen the feet. Foot fitness is another thing to consider in the barefoot horse, building strength in the foot is just as important as any other part of the body and it would be unfair to expect a horse to suddenly be ridden for long periods or on rough surfaces when they have been in a soft field for a period of time. Take some time to condition the foot and strengthen the digital cushion. Thankfully, this can be done at the same time as building their fitness! I start with in hand work and when I am happy that my criteria for riding are met, I would move onto riding for short periods of time.
Does your horse have appropriate conformation for riding? If in doubt; speak to your vet, bodyworker or trainer about their conformation. Conformation is about the overall structure of the horse, relative length of bones that will enable them to safely carry you (or not). This is often confused with posture, which I will consider separately. Conformation cannot be changed and may be a reason to retire your horse, posture however can be changed as it is due to the muscle development and how the horse holds itself.
Is the horse’s posture one which will allow them to carry you safely without injury? If I rounded my shoulders, hollowed my back and then proceed to lift weights you can bet that it would not be long before I had an injury! Horses are no different. In my opinion, this particular issue is one that is very frequently missed by owners and professionals alike. Many young horses that have been backed have never been taught how to hold themselves in a manner that will give them physical health and balance for the long term. Unless this changes they learn to compensate and put themselves at risk of injury. The posture of the horse is always something that I will consider when looking at the question of whether or not to ride. Are they able to engage their core muscles and lift their back to carry me safely? If the answer is no then I would do some groundwork first to improve their posture.
Before any consideration of riding a general MOT for the horse is a must. The usual checks such as vet, dentist, bodyworkers should (in my opinion) be done for all horses on a regular basis anyway, but if you are intending to ride, make sure they are up to date. In addition, ensure all tack and equipment is well fitting and supple. Saddle fit checks should be performed regularly as your horse will change shape from changes in the seasons as well as from your exercise schedule.
Before (top) and after (bottom) photos of Petra's posture; improved using groundwork
Moving onto some of the training considerations when deciding whether or not to ride, this includes many safety aspects:
When considering your horses training, do they have enough understanding of the behaviours they will need? So for example, if you are going hacking, is your horse confident with things you might encounter? Traffic, litter, walkers, other animals all have major safety implications and could cause an accident. Yours and your horse’s safety is paramount and in addition to this if your horse does not understand what these things are or how to react it is going to cause him/her a great deal of stress. My solution is to prepare as much as possible in a controlled safe environment, so that your horse understands the world and is able to transfer that to other situations. In addition I teach calming behaviours, so that if the worst does happen and my horse is frightened I have tools to help. Putting the building blocks of behaviours in place can ensure that you and your horse are prepared, safe and confident.
There are also more ethical considerations when considering the training perspective:
Is the horse going to be ridden in a manner that is harmful to their mental or physical health? Or is the riding a continuation of a strategy of building good posture and confidence in the horse? The latter is likely the aim for most people reading this (I hope!), but it is our responsibility to ensure that we are actively doing this. This issue has several different angles:
Is the rider able to carry themselves with good posture and balance? This is something that just about every horse rider strives for and is working on. Recognise that we are all a work in progress, but if we are to sit on our horses it is our responsibility to do so in a way that causes them to compensate as little as possible and to keep striving towards that end.
What equipment are you using? This can be an entire controversial issue in itself, but in simple terms your horse needs to be comfortable and relaxed. We have already discussed the fit, but there are many pieces of equipment that can be used to force the horse into submission or a particular shape. My personal feelings on these pieces of equipment is that it is usually a sign that the horse, rider or both require more training – if the horse understands what is required of them, they will not need to be held in a particular way. They also restrict the horse’s ability to communicate with the rider and can be physically damaging.
Does the rider know what good posture and balance looks like in the horse? This is something that is very much misunderstood in the horse world. Many people don’t understand what good posture is or how to achieve it. Unfortunately this misunderstanding is the cause of many of the extraneous pieces of equipment. In addition, if the rider does not know what to aim for, or is aiming for something different, this is going to cause the horse to develop muscles for inappropriate posture and compensation.
Improving your posture will enable your horse to carry you more comfortably. Before (left) and after (right) making changes to rider posture
Another ethical issue to consider is does the horse enjoy being ridden? If the horse is being ridden in a way that enriches their life as well as our own, then many horses can enjoy the experience and see it as fun. If they don’t enjoy it and you don’t wish to retire them, my advice would be to question why they don’t enjoy it.
In my experience often times a lack of enjoyment is caused by undiagnosed physical and health problems, so my starting point would be to investigate the things we have discussed above. If after thorough investigation no issues are found, then we need to examine the riding and training they have previously received:
How was your horse trained initially? If they have been trained and/or ridden in a manner that was punitive and not enjoyable for the horse, they will already have a history of unpleasant experiences which they associate with riding. This can be changed with new positive experiences, or even by starting from scratch with positive reinforcement.
Does your horse have open lines of communication with you? Are they able to tell you when they are not feeling ready for riding? If they do so, are you able to spot it and listen to their requests? A horse that is ridden with understanding and two way communication is going to have a very different experience from one which is ridden without. Giving our horses choice is extremely powerful in their level of trust with us, confidence and overall feeling of autonomy. One of the things I love to teach is standing quietly at the mounting block. Not only is this an absolute must for safety, but if you know that your horse understands the behaviour and one day he doesn’t do it – then it is a clear sign that they are telling you “not today”. If a horse chooses not to do an activity they normally enjoy, this is a sign that something is wrong. Perhaps they slipped in the field or don’t feel strong enough to do it. Listening and giving your horse the means to communicate with you has many advantages including prevention of injury or spotting something before it gets worse.
Expanding on the subject of giving our horses choice, does your horse have any choice in the ridden activities they participate in? Your horse may enjoy some activities more than others, giving them some choice in the matter and listening to their preferences is going to greatly improve their experience. Consider whether you actually “need” to do activities that your horse doesn’t like. If you are really keen, then investigate why your horse isn’t. Once you have a full picture of what is going on and why they do not enjoy it, then you can make a plan to help them.
Teaching your horse to stand quietly at the mounting block gives them a way to communicate with you if they don't feel ready for riding
As a last check before riding, spend some time with your horse and ask yourself whether riding today feels right.
Does the horse feel anxious or calm? Does anxiety rise when approaching the mounting block? What are they communicating with you? Most people have the ability to pick up on their horse’s feelings and will know deep down whether at that particular moment for that horse whether it is the right thing to do. Unfortunately in the modern world many of us are taught to ignore these feelings and carry on anyway or just listen to logic only. But if used effectively, this skill can keep us and our horses safe and happy.
If you do get on board only to discover that you have made a mistake and your horse is not ok for whatever reason, it is perfectly reasonable to get back off. Listening to your horse and responding is only going to build the communication and trust. Forgive yourself for making a mistake and have a think about what is going on. Similarly, if your horse is upset from a particular incident and needs a bit of extra support, it is perfectly reasonable to get off, provide that support, and get back on when he is confident again. Your horse will know that you are there to help them and next time they come across the same thing they have the positive history of having been listened to and having got through it.
This is my general overview of things to consider when it comes to the question of riding. Whether it is ethical or not in my opinion boils down to the circumstances and the answers to the above questions. If the horse is able, comfortable and finds it an enjoyable activity then absolutely I would go and have ridden fun with the horse.
I plan to expand on some of these subjects in future blogs; if any of my points has resonated with you, let me know in the comments. Or is there a new topic that you would like to hear my thoughts on? Are there any other circumstances where you would consider riding to be inappropriate? Please leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below; I would love to hear from you.
Take care of yourselves and give your horses a cuddle from me.