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31.1.2022 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

Vision for the Future

Roly Owers, World Horse Welfare

What we see on the outside can be very different from what we feel on the inside. As horse owners and riders, we know how much we love our horses. It’s important that non-equestrians recognise this, and can see that we are doing our best for our horses. There are voices from inside and outside the world of equestrianism who are questioning the ethics of owning and riding horses, and questioning the welfare of the ridden horse. Without public recognition that we are putting our horses welfare first and foremost, the sport of riding horses is at risk, both for competition and for leisure.

The social license to operate is an unwritten, non-legally binding contract whereby society ‘gives’ the right to operate. Basically, it’s whether the general public are okay with something. It’s a concept that originated in resource-based industries but more recently has been applied to animal-based industries. If public perception is against a specific concept (for example, equestrianism), then pressure from the public can cause that concept to be changed, or even stopped completely from operating. When a group has social license to operate, it’s able to continue with minimal formalised restrictions. Without the social license to operate, the activity may be outlawed or curtailed, even if it’s still legal. An example of this is the use of wild animals in the circus. I can remember the elephant that was chained on the village green each year with a local circus when I was a child. Today the vast majority of us would recognise this as detrimental to the welfare of the elephant, and definitely not in its best interest. The loss of social license to operate has already led to the banning of greyhound racing in Canberra in Australia, and in many states in the USA, and to the banning of jump racing in most of Australia.

To maintain social license, we must be ethical, accountable, and transparent. We need to be willing to recognise when things could be better, to admit when things need to change, and to act upon this knowledge. What horse riders see as ethical may be different to what the non-equestrian public see as ethical, and what we saw as ethical 10 years ago may be different to what we see as ethical today. With the internet and social media as they are today, it’s easy for the less pleasant aspects of horsemanship and the equestrian world to be shared globally in just minutes. As always, bad news sells. The mistreatment of animals is an emotive subject, and the public will judge on how we treat our horses. We can and must be proactive in promoting the use of the horse in sport and leisure as a mutually beneficial experience, with the welfare of the horse at the heart of it all, to maintain the reputation and future of equestrian sport.

Welfare includes both physical and mental well being. Just because something has always been done a particular way does not mean that’s the way it should be done. One of my favourite phrases is ‘If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got’. It’s high time we re-evaluated how we ride and manage our horses, particularly in terms of recognising the links between pain, performance and behaviour. Horse ownership comes with a responsibility to keep our knowledge up to date. Following and acting on emerging evidence can give us the confidence that we are doing the best we can for our horses, given the knowledge, tools and experience that we have available to us right now.

Maintaining and improving the welfare of our horses is not only the right thing to do, it also leads to better results. The charity World Horse Welfare is funding a study to develop an ethical framework for equestrian sport. This study is ongoing, but initial trials across several disciplines suggest that this framework is helpful in making decisions on an ethical basis. The links between improved welfare and improved performance is a great example of a win-win situation.

To improve horse welfare, we need to apply the knowledge that we already have, and to invest in more research to further develop this knowledge. We must evaluate new information, and be open to change. Rules and regulations within equestrianism should take into account the current science, and should be applied to routine horse care as well as to horse sport. Monitoring adherence to these rules and regulations will not be easy, but each of us has a responsibility not only to our own horse, but also to our sport as a whole.

So what is good welfare? This applies not only to the ridden horse, but to horse care and management in general. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 states:

Duty of person responsible for animal to ensure welfare

(1)A person commits an offence if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.

(2)For the purposes of this Act, an animal’s needs shall be taken to include—

(a)its need for a suitable environment,

(b)its need for a suitable diet,

(c)its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns,

(d)any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and

(e)its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease.

(3)The circumstances to which it is relevant to have regard when applying subsection (1) include, in particular—

(a)any lawful purpose for which the animal is kept, and

(b)any lawful activity undertaken in relation to the animal.”

You’ve probably heard of the five freedoms, which cover the animals’ diet, environment, health, behavioural interactions and mental state. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 looks at minimising the negative aspects of these. In reality, as horse riders we need to go further than this, and to provide our horses with positive experiences, as well as avoiding negative ones. I like a phrase from Roly Owers, Chief Executive of the charity World Horse Welfare, who said in his presentation at the Saddle Research Trust International Conference in December 2021 that we should provide ‘friends, freedom and forage’. One difficulty can be in agreeing what constitutes a positive experience. We have so much knowledge at our fingertips, but it is tricky to know what’s valid and helpful, and what we would be better to ignore.

Traditionally, if a ridden horse is resisting what’s being asked of him, he’s labelled as ‘naughty’, and often punished. The phrase ‘punitive training techniques’ basically means training the horse by telling him off, by punishing him when he does what we deem to be ‘wrong’. As human beings, it can be hard to accept that we need to change our behaviour, and it’s even harder to actually create that change and maintain it. We now have solid evidence linking ridden behaviour to musculoskeletal pain, in a format that can be used by all horse riders. As horse riders, we need to recognise what those behaviours are, and how to use this information. That requires sharing of knowledge and clarity of communication. Once we recognise the link between pain and behaviour, it’s no longer ok to punish a horse for demonstrating behaviours that are proven to be linked to pain.

Good welfare focuses on both the physical and the mental well being of the horse. Responding appropriately to our horses’ communication is important for their mental wellbeing, as well as their physical health. Imagine how you would feel if you were trying to tell your trainer that you were finding something difficult because you were hurting, and they just shouted at you more loudly, or worse, hit you to make you keep trying. I’m not saying that anyone’s got it all sorted, that anyone knows how to do it right. There’s always more to learn, and all of us could get better at listening and understanding. What I am saying is that it’s important that we continue to do our best, and that we make use of up to date knowledge and experience, with qualified, trusted mentors to guide us in being our horses’ care givers and partners. A vision I wholeheartedly embrace is that of World Horse Welfare, of ‘A world where every horse is treated with respect, compassion and understanding’. Each of us is responsible for our own education, and for putting into action what we learn. We owe it to our horses, to ourselves, and to equestrianism, to put the welfare of the horse as our top priority, and to show the world that this is the case.

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

January 31, 2022
Sue Palmer