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11.2.2022 My Learnings From The Saddle Research Trust 4th International Conference

I was grateful to be able to watch the replay of the Saddle Research Trust 4th International Conference, which was presented online on 11th December 2021. Here I share with you some of my learnings from the conference. Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at

Dr Sue Dyson

Application Of The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram To Improve Equine Welfare And Performance: Part 2

It can be difficult to know what is a training problem, as opposed to an underlying physical problem that compromises performance. The training is of course influenced by the skill of the rider, the demeanour of the horse, and the fit of the tack for the horse and the rider. However, if the issue is a training problem, we would expect to see progressive improvement with practise. If the RHpE score is 8 or more, then it’s likely that there’s underlying pain affecting the movement. A training problems should not be associated with persistent abnormalities of behaviour.

The British Dressage National Convention 2020 was a virtual event, due to Covid 19 pandemic. Dr Dyson reviewed the 14 horse-rider combinations that were working from Novice to Grand Prix. The RHpE scores for these horses ranged from 0 to 10, with a median of 3/24. The horses which scored between 7 and 10 all had compromised performance consistent with musculoskeletal pain. They showed poor hindlimb impulsion, poor engagement, limited ability to collect, and a poor canter. It seems likely that the performance of these horses could be improved with appropriate investigation into and management of this musculoskeletal pain. Reducing pain and suffering leads to better welfare of the horse.

A 2021 study looked at 147 elite dressage horses competing in World Cup Grand Prix competitions. The most frequently RHpE score was 3/24, with a range of 0 to 7. This indicates that the majority of horses were working comfortably. However, there was a high frequency of horses (68%) who had their mouth open with separation of the teeth for 10 or more seconds. 67% had their head behind the vertical 10 or more degrees for 10 or more seconds, 30% showed an intense stare for 5 or more seconds, and 29% repeatedly swished their tail. There was a link between the RHpE scores and judges scores, with lower RHpE scores linked to higher judges scores. This study also looked at deviations from FEI guidelines, which were most frequent in passage, piaffe, canter flying changes, canter pirouettes, and ‘halt-immobility-rein back five steps-collected trot. These deviations from FEI guidelines were not necessarily marked down by the judges. Researchers also noted that marks were being lost unnecessarily, for example the halt was not at C in 17% of the tests, and the rein back was four steps instead of five steps in 23% of the tests. Improved accuracy could lead to improved scores.

Another study used the RHpE to look at horses competing at the Hickstead-Rotterdam Grand Prix Challenge and the British Dressage Grand Prix National Championship 2020, and competed this with World Cup Grand Prix competitions. At the Hickstead-Rotterdam Grand Prix Challenge, the most common RHpE score was 4/24 with a range of 0 to 8, whereas at the British Dressage Grand Prix National Championship it was 6/24, with a range of 1 to 9. There was a higher frequency of lameness and gait abnormalities in canter in these competitions, compared to in the World Cup Grand Prix competitions. Again there was a link between the RHpE scores and the judges scores, with a lower RHpE score more likely to lead to a higher judges score.

These studies show that the social license to compete in upper level dressage is supported by low RHpE scores. It seems that there is a higher frequency of lameness in lower level horses. Identifying, investigating and treating horses with high RHpE scores, lameness, or abnormalities of canter could improve performance as well as welfare.

The double bridle is mandatory for Grand Prix dressage competitions. When we look at how often horses show mouth opening with separation of teeth, we see this happens in 35% of horses who are eventing at BE 90, 100 and Novice, in 44% of 5 star three day event horses in warm up, in 68% of horses competing in World Cup Grand Prix dressage, and in 81% of sub-elite Grand Prix dressage horses. Could we question why major errors, such as the head being behind the vertical, the mouth opening, and repeated tail swishing, are not penalised? Why are horses and riders not performing movements according to FEI guidelines? Do we need better education of judges and trainers, as well as riders? An improved understanding of the impact on the horse of working with his head behind the vertical and other training methods would help our horses to stay sound and comfortable for longer.

It’s also important to recognise gait abnormalities in canter. Often we see horses with a stiff, stilted canter, horses who canter on the forehand, who have no suspension phase, who canter close or wide behind, who spontaneously break into trot, who change behind or in front, or who have difficulty with flying changes. A 202 study looked at 148 amateur and professionally owned horses who were assumed by their rider to be working comfortably, and 60% of them showed abnormalities of the canter. Data from 5 star three day events in 2018 and 2019 assessed 172 starters during the warm up for dressage, and found abnormalities of the canter in 24% of the horses. There was a significant difference in RHpE score of the horses who had a gait abnormality in canter, and those who did not. This shows that the RHpE can highlight the presence of possible canter issues.

In 2020, researchers compared the RHpE score of 5 star three day event horses with their performance. 172 event horses were assessed during warm up for dressage using the RHpE, with scores ranging from 0 to 9. The RHpE score for the non-lame horses was most commonly 3/24. For horses who had a gait abnormality in canter, the most frequent RHpE score was 5/24. Performance was compared for those who scored 7/24 or more on the RHpE with those who scored less than 7/24. Those who scored less than 7/24 had higher dressage penalty scores, were more likely to retire or be eliminated in the cross country, and were more likely to finish lower in the placings. A lower RHpE score seems to give marginal gains in performance as well as welfare.

It’s also possible that a lower RHpE score could be linked to improved safety levels. A 2018 study looked at 187,602 horses who started the cross country phase at FEI eventing. The results showed that 1.5% of the horses fell, and 3.5% of the horses unseated their rider. Horses with more than 50 dressage penalties were more likely to fall or unseat their rider in the cross country than those with 50 or less dressage penalties. Since we know that horses with an RHpE score of 7/24 or higher are more likely to have higher penalties in the dressage, it’s likely that we can help both our horses and ourselves by identifying, investigating and treating these horses.

Unpublished data suggests that horses placed 1st, 2nd or 3rd in BE Novice, 100 and 90 events most commonly scored 2/24 on the RHpE, with a range of 0 to 8. 1,010 horses were looked at for this study. The most frequent RHpE score was 4/24, with a range of 0 to 12. This again supports the data that lower RHpE scores are linked to better performance and better results. It’s essential that we pay attention to horses ridden behaviour as a reflection of underlying discomfort that does not necessarily show up as lameness.

As riders, we have a moral responsibility to recognise that there is a problem, to do our best to identify the cause, to treat the root cause of the problem. Adjusting the management and training can improve both welfare and performance. Even if a horse is not lame in hand, it may be lame or uncomfortable when it’s ridden. The sooner that we recognise and investigate the discomfort, the more likely it is that we can successfully resolve it. Too many problems are, and have historically been, labelled as being down to the training, down to the rider, down to the horses behaviour, or simply ‘that’s just how he’s always been’. These include common behaviours such as resisting the rider, spookiness, tension, swishing the tail and tilting the head. How many of these are actually pain related?

This is not to say that there are no difficult horses. Some challenging horses show just one or two behavioural problems, for example rearing or bucking. However, most ‘naughty’ horses show many behavioural signs, which is indicative of underlying pain. Each horse reacts as an individual, and pain thresholds vary between horses. The behaviour that the horse shows does not necessarily indicate the source of the discomfort. Some horses are more tolerant to pain than others, and some are more willing than others to do what’s asked of them, despite underlying discomfort. Pain and behaviour can be affected by the type and variety of work that the horse is asked to do. We need to see the full repertoire of movements that the horse is asked to perform in order to accurately assess his ridden behaviour.

The RHpE is a tool we can use to help us recognise that a horse may have underlying pain. Some horses seem to be able and willing to perform adequately even with discomfort, others not so. If a horse shows 8 or more of the behaviours listed in the RHpE, then further investigation is warranted. To maintain social license to operate in the world of equestrian sport, we must demonstrate that our horses are free from unnecessary pain. Lower levels of pain lead to improved performance and better results, as well as making the sport safer for both horse and rider. Less pain leads to an improved demeanour, which is suggestive of a happier horse. A more comfortable horse becomes more comfortable to ride. As equestrians, we have moral and ethical responsibilities to do our best for our horses. There is always more to know, and as we understand and learn more about our horses’ behaviour, we can improve welfare, safety and performance.

Find out more about the Saddle Research Trust, and see the proceedings from previous conferences, at

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion

February 11, 2022
Sue Palmer