WEG and Welfare: Are They Compatible? Science Says Yes!

WEG and Welfare: Are They Compatible? Science Says Yes!

Two weeks away from the Fédération Equestre Internationale World Equestrian Games (WEG), I find myself at the 10th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science in Bredsten, Denmark.

The talks hone in on the science of riding—the way we ride now, the way we shouldn’t ride, and suggestions on the ways riding should evolve. They’re also about what kinds of stress we put on horses when we’re riding them. And the stress they experience when we’re competing them, and when we’re transporting them, or separating them, or housing them.

The researchers have—as researchers are prone to do—found scientific reasons to criticize the way things are done now. Competition horses undergo a lot of physical and emotional stress: sometimes confusion, sometimes anxiety, sometimes pain. High-level competition horses can go through as much of this as amateur level horses do, or even more. And in worst-case scenarios, the horses break down—physically, emotionally, or both. We see physical strains and fractures, and if we were looking more closely, we’d also be seeing the signs of depression or “learned helplessness,” as the researchers call it, in horses who have just, emotionally, given up.

One highly acclaimed scientist even said dressage horse movements are becoming “extravagant” to the point of being “ridiculous,” and that we are no longer considering the basic concept of dressage, which is to “shape” a horse to perform at his personal best with lightness.

So as I sat listening to presentation after presentation, I wondered if this research would damper the excitement of the upcoming World Equestrian Games. Are we, the hundreds of thousands of future WEG spectators, off to see an entertaining exhibition of unhappy, stressed, “ridiculous” horses and poor welfare, even at this high level? Are equestrian competitions in a modern, conscientious world reaching the borders of unethical?

Surrounded by the world’s most prominent equitation scientists, I realized I had the most reliable answers in the world, all in one place. So I asked these top researchers. Their responses were delightfully relieving:

Carol Hall, PhD, researcher and principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, in the U.K.: “WEG riders are role models for the public. And if that public sees horses being judged positively for something that isn’t in the best interest of the horse, the public understands that that’s the right way to do things, and so that gets perpetuated. We researchers are working toward a joined-up approach, between equitation scientists and elite riders, so that these riders can become ideal role models for people to follow. Getting an open dialogue going among researchers, riders, trainers, and vets is the only way things can change, and continue to change. Fortunately, we are beginning to see the effects of that already, even for these 2014 Games.”

Andrew McLean, BSc, PhD, Dipl. Ed., owner and director of the Australian Equine Behaviour Center, in Victoria, Australia: “There is a great possibility that we could be doing these high-level competitions so much better, so that they wouldn’t be such an invasion of the animals’ welfare. But I’m quite happy that things are slowly going in a better direction. Valegro (ridden by British dressage competitor Charlotte Dujardin) is a good example of that. Most of the elite level dressage horses we’ll see at WEG this year aren’t exhibiting anywhere near enough self-carriage—which was much more prominent 30 years ago. I really hope the world follows the lead of Carl Hester (U.K.) and Dujardin in bringing self-carriage back, and I’m very glad the judges are rewarding it in dressage tests. Even so, horses are remarkably adaptable. Habituation ability is the one thing that we’ve selectively bred for, more than anything. So horses are pretty capable of habituating to the various environments and conditions we put them in, including these high-level events.”

Rikke Munk Andersen, DVM, PhD, a veterinarian at Hoejgaard Hestehospital in Funen, Denmark: “Of course the horses are going to show some stress, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stress can be good and useful, up to a certain extent. Is it wrong to be stressed? Of course it isn’t, as long as it’s reasonable. It’s stressful to get up and give a presentation! Does that mean I shouldn’t do it? No. And while we should be perceptive of the horses’ stress levels and sensitive to them, it doesn’t mean we need to avoid stress completely. My research showed higher cortisol (stress hormone) levels in horses at four-day national competitions, but you can’t exclude the fact that some of that cortisol might be the result of the excitement the horses are feeling at being at the event!”

Angelo Telatin, MS, assistant professor in equine science and management at Delaware Valley College and former international competitor: “We’re at a pivotal point in competing with equines now, and we’re going to see that at the World Equestrian Games this year. There’s a real social pressure to ensure good welfare of the horse, to the point that we hardly even need rules to protect equine welfare. Riders develop certain reputations, and even if the public doesn’t always know what those reputations are, the elite riding world does. You’re not going to get a sponsor if you’ve got a reputation for being aggressive, for example. There’s a real sense of awakening now, into what’s right and what’s wrong in horse training. It’s an awareness that will definitely go in favor of the horse, especially at this high level of performance.”

Hayley Randle, PhD, researcher in the equitation science department at Duchy College in Cornwall, U.K.: “It’s really over the past decade that there’s been a sufficient amount of research done to start to truly understand the physical and psychological impacts that humans have on horses through training, riding, and competition. In elite events like WEG, of course most riders want what’s best for their horses, even if they’re not always aware yet of our scientific work. That’s why the focus now of equitation science is really geared towards riders, trainers, owners, and even organizers—the range of people responsible for the welfare of these horses. It’s also why we now have an ISES Code of Conduct for Events. As spectators we can support these efforts and attend these events knowing that progress is underway. By watching, we can also educate ourselves, recognizing where problems lie so that we can contribute to resolving those problems, at all levels of riding.”

So to WEG I’ll go, along with the multitudes of other spectators from across the globe, and I’ll watch and learn. I’ll celebrate great riding, question certain training techniques, and wonder how my own riding might improve based on the methods of these role models.

And most of all, I’ll marvel and wonder at this amazingly adaptable, magnificent athlete, the horse.

How do you feel about the stresses put on horses during competition at any level?

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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