On 23rd January 2021 a study was published in Equine Veterinary Education titled "An investigation of behaviour during tacking‐up and mounting in ridden sports and leisure horses." Authors Dyson, Bondi, Routh, Pollard, Preston, McConnell, and Kydd concluded that "Abnormal behaviour during tacking‐up and mounting was common."
The objective of the study was to look at the behaviour of horses whilst they're being tacked up and whilst they're being mounted. 193 horses were watched during the process of tacking up and mounting. Their behaviour was recorded, in particular when the saddle was placed on the back, when the girth was done up, when the bridle was put on, and when the rider got on. The horses were from 11 different yards, and belonged to both amateurs and professionals.
One finding that's interesting to me was that 67% of the horses were bridled before they were saddled. A colleague of mine asked the question on Instagram recently, "Do you put the saddle on first or the bridle?" I can't remember what her findings were, but I remember I commented at the time. I was taught, I can't remember who by, to put the saddle on first. The reason for this is that it allows the saddle and saddle pad time to warm to the horse's back before the rider gets on. I still agree with that thinking now. So with the science saying that two thirds of riders put the bridle on first, one of the things I'll be adding to my physio advice is to saddle your horse before you bridle him.
Half the horses in the study showed a similar number of abnormal behaviours during saddling as they did during bridling. A third of them showed more abnormal behaviours during saddling than during bridling, and a sixth of them showed more during bridling than during saddling. The abnormal behaviours lasted for between one quarter and three quarters of the time it took for the tacking up process to be completed. The more abnormal behaviours that were shown, the longer the behaviours were likely to last for.
The most common abnormal behaviour during bridling was chomping on the bit, and this was seen in two thirds of the horses. Other significant behaviours included ears back and an intense stare, fidgeting, and tail swishing. When they were saddled, 11% of the horses turned their heads to the girth. 40% of horses did this when the girth was being done. Also, 5% of horses threatened to bite when the saddle was put on, and 15% tried to bite when the girth was put on and done up.
What are these horses trying to say? Does a horse turning his head to the girth mean he's uncomfortable? Does a horse trying to bite when he's saddled mean he's in pain? Does biting mean the discomfort is worse than if the horse is just turning his head? Is it ok for him to turn his head but not ok for him to bite, or threaten to bite? And if these things do mean he's uncomfortable, what should or could we do about them? So many questions, and nowhere near enough answers! In my opinion, it's fair for us to assume that if a horse is turning his head or threatening to bite when he's being saddled, then he's trying to communicate discomfort.
It would seem to me that the 'happy athletes', the horses who are comfortable with what's being done to them or asked of them, are the ones who are contentedly munching on their hay or watching the world go by while we tack them up. But if our horse is trying to tell us something's wrong, it's not always easy, or possible, to find the answer.
Sometimes the best we can do is to manage the situation, and to do what we can to make our horses more comfortable now and in the future. This is something I'd like everyone to bear in mind before they judge others.
We all have a level of discomfort, that we live with day by day. If I have a headache, and believe me I get some nasty headaches, I'll probably moan about it a bit. That doesn't necessarily mean I want to stop doing what I'm doing. But it does mean that I'd like those around me to respect the fact that I have a headache. I can do what I can to make myself more comfortable right now by taking medication. I can take preventative action, things like making sure I get enough sleep, and drink enough water, to reduce the likelihood of a headache in the future. And I can manage the situation by letting others know that I've got a headache and asking them to turn the radio down, or to give me some extra time to complete a task, for example.
How can we translate this to our horses? What can we do to ease things for them right now? What can we do to reduce the likelihood of discomfort in the future? And how can we show them that we are listening to them, and respecting their needs? For me, it has to begin with understanding better what they are trying to tell us.
You can watch a short video of Dr Sue Dyson discussing this article here:
The link to the abstract of this article is here: https://beva.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/eve.13432