Poignant Horse Articles from 2018

2018 has been a year of questioning. This year we have questioned whether to bit or not to bit, how tight is too tight a noseband, how many horse related accidents on the roads are needed before drivers slow down, do horses show pain through facial emotions…? I think this is an exceptional breakthrough… as we question more about the ways we manage and treat our horses, equine welfare can improve based on our understanding.

Riders Stability in a Flapless versus a Conventional Saddle

Research published in June 2018 and conducted by Hilary Clayton, Alexandra Hampson, Peter Fraser, Arlene White and Agneta Egenvall compared rider stability in an innovative flapless saddle versus a conventional saddle.

The findings concluded that the flapless saddle was associated with significantly reduced range of motion of the riders centre of pressure in all gaits. Stability of the rider was also improved, potentially as a result of the removal of saddle flaps allowing for the rider’s thighs to lie in an adducted position and thus closely contacted to the sides of the horse.

Further reading about the study, how it was conducted and the findings are available here.


Pain Ethogram – identifying horses pain from facial expressions?

The Animal Health Trust conducted a revelatory study into determining a link between equine facial expressions and pain, and if equine professionals could be trained to identify these negative facial expressions using software. Research commenced in May 2018, the study was conducted in July 2018 and results were published in August 2018.

I was very privileged to be able to take part in the online research involving training for the ethogram, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the vets, owners and horses who participated in our ridden pain assessment day at World Horse Welfare Snetterton on Saturday 21 July. This was a crucial step in the verification of the use of a behaviour ethogram to help vets detect low-grade musculoskeletal pain in ridden horses. We hope this study will change the way vets assess horse behaviour and recognise pain, leading to improved diagnosis of musculoskeletal conditions in horses, all over the world.


What’s next?
We now have to correlate all the results, but it was absolutely clear that the total behaviour scores for the non-lame horses were much lower than those for the lame horses.


What happened on the assessment day?
20 volunteer horse–rider combinations performed a purpose-designed dressage test lasting approximately eight minutes, mostly in working trot and canter. Ten veterinarians, who had received some preliminary on-line training, together with one experienced assessor (Dr Sue Dyson) applied a ridden horse ethogram (a list of 24 behaviours) to assess if the horses were in pain whilst ridden. 


The horses’ backs were also assessed by a veterinary physiotherapist (Jo Spear) and saddle fit was assessed by a Society of Master Saddlers qualified saddle fitter (Liz Suddaby). The presence of lameness during the test, or abnormalities in canter, was assessed by a veterinarian experienced in evaluating ridden horses (Laura Quiney). 


Despite sweltering heat, the day went very well, although some owners were disappointed to learn that their horses showed signs of lameness.
Mike Daly, of Woodlands Veterinary Clinic, Cheltenham, one of the vets participating in the assessment, said: “Many thanks to the AHT for an excellent day’s work. Discussing this at the end with the other vets, I feel we were all given a real eye-opener into evaluating pain and lameness. I will definitely be using this technique and will be presenting these ideas to the other vets in the practice.”

July 2018 – Ridden Pain Assessment Data Collection… an update from the AHT.
Overall findings concluded that the ethogram can be used by trained and non-trained assessors alike. Although, specific training is required for its best use. This proves optimistic for equine welfare, as any technique that aids in the identification of equine pain and discomfort is a positive step in the way of animal welfare. Read more here.

VIDEO: Developing the Ethogram

How does the ethogram work?


Noseband Tightness

Horse and Hound released an article in April 2018 following research conducted by the University of Sydney to revive the debate on noseband tightness. The research found that a proportion of horses in the study showed signs of trauma as a result of the noseband. Although it was emphasised that results should be “exercised with caution”, these findings sparked thoughts once again in the equestrian world. It caused the British Equestrian Veterinary Association to speak out about the matter, stating that tack was for “safety and control” and not to “mask what may be a symptom of pain elsewhere in the body”.

This article resurfaced a previous research study conducted by Mette Uldahl and Hilary Clayton (2017) that identified a clear link between noseband tightness and occurrence of lesions.

3,143 competition horses checked post-competition. In the study, a highly significant correlation between tight nosebands and oral lesions was reported. If a noseband was loosened from the tightest category to the medium category, a 34% decrease in oral lesions was detected. The same effect was seen going from the medium category to the loosest category: an additional 34%. Thus, overall, a 68% decrease in oral lesions was seen in loosening from the tight category to the loosest category. The study also showed that oral lesions were a particular problem in dressage in general and increasingly at high-level dressage competitions.

These findings were also enforced lawfully within equestrian federations, with many implementing regulations to check noseband tightness at competitions and reprimand for negative findings. British rider Charlotte Dicker was dealt a yellow card following inspection at the Junior and Young Rider Championships in France.

Noseband tightness may cause stress (2016 Article)

A General Article on Noseband Tightness


Horses can Read and Remember Human Emotions

In April 2018, research conducted by the University of Sussex and the University of Portsmouth was published. Horses in the study were shown a picture of an angry or happy human face, and then hours later met the person pictured… this time with a completely neutral expression.

“What we’ve found is that horses can not only read human facial expressions but they can also remember a person’s previous emotional state when they meet them later that day – and, crucially, that they adapt their behaviour accordingly,”

…said Karen McComb, a lead author of the study and a professor of animal behaviour at the University of Sussex.

ARTICLE: the Independent

ARTICLE: Horse and Hound


Licking and chewing – a true sign of submission or stress?

It has been commonly assumed that a horse that licks and chews during training and interaction is showing signs of submission. At the end of September, the International Society for Equitation Science held their conference in which research from a study that investigated whether licking and non-nutritive chewing behaviour was a true indicator of submission or, potentially, stress.

The results interestingly found that non-nutritive chewing was performed most often by the aggressor horse, questioning whether this particular behaviour can be classed as submissive.

“The researchers also investigated whether non-nutritive chewing occurred between tense and relaxed situations. When observing the horses’ behavioural sequences, they found that the majority of the behaviours before chewing were tense and the majority of behaviours after chewing were relaxed. The chewing behaviour occurred when the horses transitioned from a tense to a relaxed state.”

It was concluded that chewing behaviour could have occurred as a response to lubrication of a dry mouth caused from a stressful situation in an attempt to restore biological equilibrium and relaxation.

“However, this study does highlight that licking and chewing likely occurs after a stressful situation and may be used as a behavioural indicator that the previous situation was perceived as stressful by the horse.”

ARTICLE: A Statement on the Misuse of Leadership and Dominance Concepts in Equestrian Training


Correct Cooling Down Conundrums

Another debate that was sparked this year was about the best way to cool down your horse, following an incredibly hot and dry summer. For me personally, this was the first time I had been presented with evidence against scraping your horse down following washing off. I always believed that rapid cooling was achieved by rinsing your horse over and then scraping the water off as soon as possible… and repeating. Turning a wet horse out in the field on a hot summers day was classed as poor horsemanship, as surely the horses core body temperature would rise as the surface water was evaporated?

This article by Horse and Hound outlines the statements of Dr David Marlin, a scientific and equine consultant who has studied equine thermoregulation for over 20 years and played a major role in planning the cooling strategy for Beijing 2008 Olympics as well as educating FEI teams.


How often do I train?

The frequency at which a horse should be trained has always been a topic of uncertainty based on anecdotal evidence. This study was conducted by the International Society for Equitation Science. The aim of the study was to assess the speed a horse learns novel tasks when trained at different time intervals using negative reinforcement.

Key findings suggested that:
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
🔹If you are repeatedly training your horse to do the same task every day, you could well be spending your time more productively.

🔹 The research, by equine scientists from Germany and Australia, found that allowing horses breaks of two days between training sessions rather than training daily results in similar learning progress over a period of 28 days.

🔹 The use of a training schedule may be a useful tool in optimising training a improving effectiveness.

🔹 Horses do not forget what they have learned if they are trained every third day rather than daily. Allowing horses a break of two days between training sessions rather than training them daily not only results in similar learning progress, but is a more efficient use of the trainers’ and the horses’ time.


🔹 While training every day is not necessarily a welfare concern, it is important to remember that the type of task trained is also relevant. If the horse is taught a strenuous physical task, they will need time out between training to allow their muscles to rest and repair.
⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
◼️ However… would these findings have been different if POSITIVE reinforcement was used? Would the required intervals in between training be smaller? ◼️


More poignant articles from 2018 (December to January)…

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