Researchers Evaluate Riding School Horse Health

Riding school horses can face multiple health and welfare challenges simply because of their situation—working under various riders with varying skill levels and frequently stalled.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Riding school horses can face multiple health and welfare challenges simply because of their situation—working under various riders with varying skill levels and frequently stalled. Recently, Danish researchers undertook an innovative study to investigate how horses at 100 riding schools in that country were managed and how this affected their health.

The biggest culprits for health issues in these riding school horses? Lack of pasture time and a horse's advancing age, the researchers said. But also—and perhaps more surprisingly—the advancing age of the school manager and the limited experience and education of the instructors.

“The older the manager is, the more (issues) we saw in the horses,” said Jens Frederik Agger, PhD, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark. “It may not be what we want to hear, but that is what our data analysis shows so far.” Agger presented the research at the 2014 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Aug. 6-9 in Bredsten, Denmark.

As for the instructors, continuing education and experience appear to be key in keeping the riding school horses healthy for work. “The more experienced the teacher is, the fewer days the horses have to take off,” Agger said. “If the teachers stay active in competitions themselves and if they attend training and education sessions, this reduces also the number of days off.”

Still, the greatest influence of all on riding school health was turnout time, in a linear relationship with health, he said: The more time horses spent outdoors, the fewer days they were out of work due to health problems.

The horse's age also affected its health, with older horses missing more days of work than younger horses on average. “However, it’s not a straight line,” Agger said, indicating that not all older horses work less; rather, it's dependent on the individual animal's condition.

The biggest health problem leading to days off work was lameness, Agger said. Nearly 70% of the missed working days were due to lameness. Less common causes of days off included colic, behavior problems, skin conditions, and coughing. The total number of days off per year varied considerably from school to school, ranging from none to 30 (at which point the horses were often sold) and averaging five.

However, behavior problems were the main reason the riding schools would get rid of a horse, he said. As many as 80% of the schools interviewed said they'd culled horses—sold them or sent them to slaughter—because of behavior issues. Other reasons for culling were lameness, airway disease, and expenses.

School size ranged from two to 49 horses and six to 450 students, Agger said. Horses worked up to 24 hours a week, averaging 10.3 hours a week.

The study was the result of a request by the Danish government to look into the welfare of the riding school horse population.

“Many people consider the conditions of riding school horses to be less attractive compared to that of privately owned horses,” he said. “But in the end we found that Danish riding school horses are relatively healthy, averaging only five days off per year per horse for health-related reasons. So that is not that bad.”

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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