Who is to blame? Compromised welfare in ridden horses.

Equids have always played important roles in human lives: in the past as a safe source of food, means of transport, companions on the battlefield, and today for sport and leisure. When applying the principles of learning theory, horses can learn new responses and specific tasks to perform for humans. This skill does not only impact the effective and safe ‘use’ of horses by humans but also often defines their commercial value [1][2].


However, incorrectly applied training methods and misunderstood or lacking knowledge of learning theory, including the correct application of positive and negative reinforcement by professional coaches and amateur riders alike, can jeopardise equine welfare and contribute to horse wastage [3][4]. Consequently, more and more horses are being retired prematurely or, worst, slaughtered each year as they are considered unsafe or difficult to train and ride.


One must consider that horses are never born with a certain ‘attitude’ towards humans but rather learn wanted or unwanted behaviour during their daily interactions with other horses, humans, and the environment. Therefore, it should be a rider’s and horse trainer’s primary goal to become educated about learning theory to improve rider safety, enhance rider-horse relationships, and lower the incidence of behavioural horse wastage [5].


Unfortunately, several studies revealed a lack of understanding and potentially incorrect application of learning theory in horse training by professional coaches [5][6] and riders [7] alike, and those results are alarming.


The question is, who is to blame?


The unlicensed trainer or coach, who receives training/coaching from other unlicensed or professional coaches/riders?


The licensed trainer, who receives his/her education from a nationally recognised equestrian federation?


National or international equestrian federations, who, in some instances, fail to generate and deliver knowledge in the correct way?


The equine industry in general, who still bases its regulations and training methods on ‘traditions’ and ‘experiences’ of the last decades rather than scientific foundations that are being generated by science?


Or, is it not our main responsibility as riders to constantly update our knowledge base ourselves and to critically analyse common practices of the equine industry when interacting with our horses?


You have the choice to make a change today. "Be the change you want to see" (Ghandi).  



[1] McCall, C.A., Salters, M.A. and Simpson, S.M. (1993) Relationship between number of conditioning trials per training session and avoidance learning in horses. Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 36: pp.291-299.

[2] Murphy, J. and Arkins, S. (2007) Equine learning behavior. Behavioural Processes 76: pp. 1-13.

[3] Hall, C., Goodwin, D., Heleski, C., Randle, H. and Waran, N. (2008) Is there evidence of learned helplessness in horses? Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 11: pp.249-266.

[4] Ödberg, F. O. and Bouissou, M.-F. (1999) The development of equestrianism from the baroque period to the present day and its consequences for the welfare of horses. Equine Veterinary Journal 28(Suppl.): pp. 26–30.

[5] Warren-Smith, A.K. and McGreevy, P.D. (2008) Equestrian Coaches’ Understanding and Application of Learning Theory in Horse Training. Anthrozoös21(2): pp. 153-162.

[6] Wentworth-Stanley, C., Randle, H. and Wolframm, I. (2014) Survey of Canadian Certified Coaches’ Understanding and Application of Learning Theory in Horse Training. Proceedings of the International Society for Equitation Science Conference. Vingsted, Denmark 7-9 August. Tjele, Denmark: Danish Center for Food and Agriculture and Arhus University, Vingsted (2014).

[7] Bornmann, T. (2016) Riders’ perceptions, understanding and theoretical application of learning theory [abstract]. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 15, 79-80.

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