Have you ever wondered if horse riding is cruel? Is there an ethical way to do it? Do vegans dare to ride horses? Spoiler alert. Yes, some vegans ride horses (and that’s okay).
The ethics of horse riding are highly debatable and somewhat controversial. On one hand, you have die-hard horse fans who invest copious amounts of money and time looking after their beloved pets.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who breed, train and trade horses purely for financial gain — no matter the cost to the horse.
This guide will cover a brief history of horse riding, whether horses actually feel pain when ridden before assessing the ethical nuances of horseback riding.
Horse domestication: are there any wild horses left?
The word “horse” comes from the Latin Equus or Greek hippos.
They’re large animals with adults weighing between 400 and 1,200kgs.
Horses were hunted for meat before becoming domesticated. The trade-off? Horses got shelter and food, and in exchange, they pulled chariots and provided transportation in war.
Horses have been domesticated for around 6,000 years in the steppe lands north of the Black Sea from Ukraine to Kazakhstan and today are one of the most popular pets in the world.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, there are approximately 60 million horses worldwide with over 300 different breeds.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many wild horses today due to domestication — despite a small number in Central Asia.
There are, however, around 600,000 feral horses, which are descendants of domesticated horses (that behave like wild horses). Australia has the largest population of feral horses (called Brumby’s), with approximately 400,000 individuals.
Horses are members of the family Equidae, which includes donkeys, zebras, mules, and asses.
The different types of horse riding
I know this sounds overly fundamental. But it’s essential to define horse riding when trying to understand the industry’s cruelty.
Horse riding is where the rider sits on the horse’s back with their legs draped over their body. Riders use reins attached to the horse’s head to control its movement. Riders can also hold onto the saddle horn or pommel to steady themselves.
Humans ride horses for recreation, utility and competitive sports. The most common types of horse riding include:
- Riding lessons: a prevalent activity amongst children who want to learn how to ride horses.
- Horse racing: a sport where jockey’s train and race horses in competition.
- Eventing: a team consisting of one horse and rider competes against others for points in each discipline (dressage, cross country, and show jumping). The sport of horse show jumping has been around since the mid-1800s, and it’s one of the most popular equestrian sports today.
- Trail riding: where horses are ridden on a trail. It’s like going for a hike with a horse in nature.
- Entertainment: horses are trained to be rented out to feature in films and music videos.
- Transportation: there are still some remote villages that rely on horseback riding as their primary mode of transportation.
Beyond riding, horses are used for work activities, including ploughing, hauling and other heavy-duty labour — coining the phrase “workhorse”.
Why is riding considered to be good for horses?
As we can’t directly communicate with horses, it’s challenging to determine a good or bad experience for them. But we can try to make some educated assumptions based on how horses respond and behave to certain situations. Below are 3 common arguments for why riding is healthy for horses.
1. Riding can be an effective form of exercise
A study tracked the movement of Brumby’s in Australia and found the average distance travelled ranged between 8 and 28 kilometres per day. Sometimes horses will migrate up to 55 kilometres in a day to find water.
While these numbers refer to travelling for survival, not exercise — it gives us insight into how horses are genetically programmed to move regularly.
A domesticated horse in a stable doesn’t need to migrate for survival but still needs to exercise to build muscle, stamina, stay loose and release endorphins.
In the absence of vast pastures and landmass, riding a horse as a form of healthy exercise in captive situations makes sense especially when the alternative is staying in a barn eating hay 24/7.
2. Riding can provide stimulation and enjoyment
When reading the body language of any animal, we have to make some assumptions as to how they’re feeling. Generally speaking, a horse is feeling happy if:
- Nostrils are relaxed and soft. If unhappy, her nostrils will become tight.
- The lip line should curl down slightly when relaxed. Otherwise, her lip will be tight.
- The lower jaw should be loose and may hang down.
- The tail should be loose and swinging freely.
- Rearing and pawing at other horses are signs that he’s happy. Horse’s won’t engage with other horses if they’re unhappy.
Equestrian researchers note that heavy breathing and snorting are signs that a horse feels relaxed when ridden. Of course, this isn’t always the case (more on that below).
Experienced equestrians who develop deep connections with their horses usually have a good grasp on the personality and mood of their horse and adjust their riding approach accordingly.
3. Horses get food, shelter and protection in exchange for their riding services
Domesticated horses have much to gain from a caring human relationship. Food, shelter, protection, grooming, veterinary care, and companionship keep captive horses healthier for longer.
The life expectancy of domestic horses is about 25 to 30 years, with some living into their 40s (the oldest recorded domestic horse lived to 62 years old).
In comparison, horses living in the wild have shorter life spans getting to 15 years old on average.
This is unsurprising considering that horses are generally kept as pets and don’t have to worry about surviving every waking moment of the day.
Do horses feel pain when ridden?
Horses will feel varying degrees of pain and discomfort when being ridden depending on pre-existing health conditions, age, experience levels of the rider, the weight and height of the rider, amongst other factors.
However, there are some situations where horses don’t feel significant pain when ridden — providing that riders can determine the optimal riding conditions for a relatively pain-free riding experience.
I know what you’re thinking. How do we determine whether a horse is in pain? It starts by understanding horse lameness.
What is horse lameness?
According to the American Association of Equine Practitioners, lameness is a term used to describe a horse’s change in gait (the way they move), usually in response to pain somewhere in a limb, but also possibly as a result of a mechanical restriction on movement.
In other words, any over-compensated or abnormal movement can be seen as lameness or some sort of discomfort.
By analysing lameness and gait movements, researchers can draw reasonable conclusions of pain thresholds for horses. Luckily, I found a pretty comprehensive framework for calculating lameness.
The 24-point ethogram to determine horse pain
Dr Sue Dyson is an internationally renowned equine vet who has developed an ethogram with 24 markers to determine horse lameness and pain when being ridden.
While scoring systems aren’t perfect, Dr Dyson has done extensive research regarding horse behaviour indicators and has created a reasonably robust framework to point us in the right direction.
If you’re interested in learning more about this scoring system, I highly recommend you check out Dr Dyson’s free 90-minute webinar, hosted by the charity World Horse Welfare.
To summarise, there are 24 behaviour markers in the ethogram, including:
7 facial markers.
7 body markers.
And 10 gait markers.
Dr Dyson also found a significant difference in scores between non-lame and lame horses.
The threshold for lameness using this scoring system is 8/24, which means scores less than 8 = non-lame and greater than 8 = lame.
A sample of 57 sports horses, e.g. dressage and show jumping horses, were considered by the owners to be in healthy non-lame health. After applying the ethogram, 47% of the horses showed lameness, including 12% that were only lame when ridden.
A more recent study of 148 horses (a combination of leisure and sports) found that 28.4% of horses were lame in hand, and an astonishing 62.2% were lame ridden.
Both studies prove that horses experience increased pain and discomfort purely from the act of being ridden.
Other factors that influence the scores include the height and weight of the rider. As well as the type of saddle or overall gear used when riding horses.
So yes, horses feel pain when ridden.
The horse racing industry is much worse, with riders often commencing training before horses reach adulthood and fully develop their bones, adding more pressure to their muscular-skeletal system.
Of course, like human athletes, these horses increase their strength, stamina, agility and pain threshold with more repetition and training.
Is it cruel to ride horses?
Horses don’t want to be ridden (at least before training), and research shows that riding causes lameness and discomfort. So on this basis, horseback riding is cruel.
Add the financial incentive or an exchange for horses to “work” for humans through riding services, competitions, and labour, and, likely, humans will unknowingly (or knowingly) push the boundaries of discomfort.
For example, competitive horses need to undergo extensive training and are regularly pushed out of their comfort zone.
And riding lessons can go wrong if the weight and height of the participant doesn’t match the appropriate threshold for the horse, but the trainer looks the other way and proceeds anyway.
And I know there’s a group of considerate horse lovers that do their best to check every box when training and riding horses. Some of these folks treat their horses better than themselves. But they only represent a fraction of the industry.
As Dr Dyson said at the beginning of her presentation, many owners and some veterinarians are not skilled at recognising the presence of lameness in horses — despite their best intentions.
This is further perpetuated by horse breeding. Horses are bred into captive environments where they’re expected to perform and be ridden.
It’s one thing to adopt a horse who’s living in a barn all day or is about to be shipped off for slaughter. In this context, a loving horse/human relationship is better and frankly nobler than doing nothing — especially when you consider the costs and time involved to support that horse.
If you’re one of these people, I want to acknowledge your incredible commitment to these animals.
But supporting a cycle of breeding horses to spec for performance, aesthetic and other preferences knowing that they don’t want to be ridden, and knowing that most riders don’t have the adequate knowledge to see behavioural signs of lameness, is nothing but cruel.
In what situation is it ethical to ride horses?
Let’s keep in mind that we’re trying to make an unideal situation suck less. Even when considering the stresses of living in the wild vs the perks of domesticated living. With their herd, horses in the wild make for a fully enriched life. Taking the good with the bad.
It’s unnatural for horses to be ridden. Still, we’ve created a situation through domestication, performance and commerce that all we can do now is make the experience less painful for horses.
If you still desperately want to ride your horse, which to an extent, I can understand. We’re talking thousands of dollars of monthly upkeep here.
So folks aren’t going to invest all that time, money and love without the expectation of being able to ride their horse. Although I’m sure there are exceptions.
Here’s three criteria for cruelty-free horseback riding:
- Adopt don’t shop. Similar to the dog breeding industry, adopting horses is a net gain for each horse saved from an otherwise bad situation. Don’t let the demand for riding horses promote an endless cycle of breeding an excessive supply of domesticated sentient beings that ultimately get exploited and often turned into dog food.
- Create an environment for your horse that allows them to interact with other horses, have the freedom to roam and explore, and forage for food. According to professor Natalie Waran, these are known as the 3 F’s (friends, freedom, food).
- Educate yourself on how to understand the lameness signals of your horse. Dr Dyson has a course on recognising the 24 behaviours indicating pain in the ridden horse. Once you know, be sure not to cross the pain threshold for your horse.
Meeting the above criteria gets us closer to safe, cruelty-free horseback riding.
As you can see, you need a massive commitment to tick these boxes and if you can, amazing! For everyone else, perhaps it’s best to not ride horses to avoid any potential harm.
What do you think? Is it unethical to ride horses?
While horses are likely to live a more enriched life in the wild as herds, our history of breeding and domesticating these beautiful animals means we need to develop sophisticated practices to significantly reduce pain and discomfort when riding.
I’d love to hear from you now. Do you think horse riding is cruel? Is there such a thing as cruelty-free riding? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.