An ethogram is a series of behaviours each with strict definitions, for example ears back behind a vertical position for five seconds or more. The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) was developed to facilitate the recognition of discomfort in ridden horses, which was likely to reflect either primary musculoskeletal pain or discomfort caused by the tack and/ or rider. The RHpE consists of 24 behaviours and the display of eight or more behaviours within a ridden exercise period of approximately 10 minutes, comprising trot and canter and transitions, is likely to reflect an underlying problem.
A question that has arisen is whether or not the RHpE scores can be influenced by rider skill. For example, could a skilled professional rider conceal signs of pain at a pre-purchase examination which might have been apparent if the horse had been ridden by a less skilled rider?
In order to address this question 40 horses were ridden by their usual rider and also by a single professional rider. Each horse-rider combination performed a purpose-designed dressage-type test at preliminary level, plus 10 m diameter circles in rising trot, lasting 8.5 minutes. Half of the horses were ridden first by the usual rider, and half were ridden first by the professional rider. The professional rider could alter stirrup leather length, but otherwise there were no changes in the equipment used.
The horses were assessed by independent experts who determined the presence or absence of lameness or abnormalities of canter, ascribed a gait quality score for trot and canter (1-10) and a rider skill score (1-10). The RHpE was also applied.
The results showed that there were no significant differences among the riders for the total RHpE scores, but sometimes the behaviours displayed changed. For example, the horse may change from being ‘above the bit’ to being ‘behind the bit’. However, gait quality scores were higher for the more skilled rider. In addition, the more skilled rider could conceal lameness observed with a less skilled rider.
This has important consequences when viewing a horse prior to purchase and seeing it ridden by a good rider. The rider may conceal lameness and make the horse move superficially well. Abnormalities of behaviour reflecting discomfort, for example tail swishing and mouth opening, cannot be hidden and should not be ignored. Buyer beware!
© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021
Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion