Ethical considerations in horse riding

Prompted by comments about a recent equine TV programme, I have been discussing the ethics of horse owning/riding, elsewhere online.  I thought it appropriate to put my thoughts here too.

The last 30 years have seen more evidence based ethological and neuropsychological information about horse behaviour. Based on this, many owners and riders are now starting to question how they interact with another sentient and conscious species, when that interaction is often based on restricting and directing the behavioural repertoire of one species in order to meet the social and emotional needs of another. Specifically, many people now give more consideration to the behavioural implications of how they ride and manage their horses. What individual horse people consider reasonable, or not fair, will position them somewhere along a “continuum of intervention” in a sense.

In a recent TV programme, 2 people were shown entering a horse’s loose box. They would have been accompanied by a camera crew too. The horse stands still as the people enter, and shows little response to them. Throughout the duration of the clip the horse does not move any of its feet. This is not typical behaviour in horses; as a prey animal generally they will move their feet regularly, even if it is just to pick up and put down the same foot. Generally they will interact with the person they are familiar with, maybe investigate the new person, maybe show some alert or exploratory behaviours directed to unfamiliar objects carried by the film crew. However this horse stood in the same place in its box, not moving, its eyes appearing to close more and more until it seemed to jerk itself awake again. Similar to how horses present when they are sedated, as one behaviourist commented.

This observed behaviour is consistent with the behavioural state of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus which it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation. Even when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness will prevent any action.

Several researchers argue that learned helplessness exists in horses, and there is considerable wider scientific support for this. Conditioned suppression of learned behaviour is also known to occur in response to repeated presentations of fear/pain-inducing stimuli. Worth bearing these concepts in mind when working with any horse: traditional training methods use negative reinforcement and punishment, in the behavioural sense of these words, thus fear/avoidance and pain/discomfort are present to a greater or lesser degree.

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