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2.2.2022 Sharing The Science: The Horse-Rider Relationship

Symbiosis or Sporting Tool? Competition and the Horse-Rider Relationship in Elite Equestrian Sports

by Rachel C. Hogg and Gene A. Hodgins

Is the horse-rider relationship essential to success, irrelevant to success, or does it negatively impact on success? Is success determined by how the rider sees success, or by how others see success? As you can imagine, there are no easy answers to these questions. These researchers interviewed 36 elite competition riders, and found that the relationship between horse and rider was sometimes beneficial and sometimes unhelpful in terms of achieving success, however ‘success’ might be defined. Where the horse-rider relationship means the rider is less likely to succeed, there could be implications for horse welfare, which might pose a threat to the ethics of equestrian sport.

Simple Summary

Forming relationships with horses is commonly understood as an important part of amateur and elite equestrian sports. Horse-human relationships have historically been romanticized and the success of sporting horse-human combinations has been attributed to a close relationship between horse and rider. Elite equestrian sports differ from amateur equestrian sports, especially where an elite rider earns their primary income from riding and competing horses, and third-party sponsors and owners are financially invested in a horse-rider combination. In this study, 36 elite equestrian athletes were interviewed about their interspecies relationships. Results indicated that a strong horse-rider relationship could, in some instances, inhibit a rider’s ability to compete successfully and engage in a commercialized sporting context, due to tensions between an instrumental approach to animals and meaningful horse-rider interaction. Results also suggested that horse-rider relationships may be peripheral to performance outcomes, or conversely, essential to performance success. The relationship between sporting outcomes and the horse-rider relationship in an elite setting is clearly complex and multifaceted. An increase in transient, instrumental horse-rider relationships may be resulting in a shift towards a commercial, detached model of relating to horses, raising ethical questions around the professionalization of equestrianism and the management of competition horses.


The horse-rider relationship is fundamental to ethical equestrianism wherein equine health and welfare are prioritized as core dimensions of sporting success. Equestrianism represents a unique and important form of interspecies activity in which relationships are commonly idealized as central to sporting performance but have been largely unexplored in the sport psychology literature. Horse-rider relationships warrant particular consideration in the elite sporting context, given the tension between constructions of “partnership” between horse and rider, and the pragmatic pressures of elite sport on horse and rider and their relationship. The current study examined the link between sporting performance and the horse-rider relationship in an elite equestrian sporting context. Thirty-six international elite riders from eight countries and six equestrian disciplines participated in a single in-depth interview. A social constructionist, grounded theory methodology was used to analyze this data. The horse-rider relationship was positioned in three different ways in relation to elite sporting outcomes: as pivotal to success; non-essential to success; or as antithetical to success. Participants shifted between these positions, expressing nuanced, ambivalent attitudes that reflected their sporting discipline and their personal orientation to equestrianism. Competitive success was also defined in fluid terms, with participants differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic markers of success. These findings suggest a complex and multifaceted connection between interspecies performance and relationships in elite sport. Where strong horse-rider relationships are antithetical to performance, a threat to the welfare and ethics of equestrian sport exists. Relevant sporting governing bodies must attend to this problem to ensure the centrality of animal welfare, wellbeing, and performance longevity to equestrian sports.

You can read the full article here.

Hogg, R.C.; Hodgins, G.A. Symbiosis or Sporting Tool? Competition and the Horse-Rider Relationship in Elite Equestrian Sports. Animals 2021, 11, 1352.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion

February 2, 2022
Sue Palmer