Understanding Horse Behavior Might Prevent Human Injury

Understanding Horse Behavior Might Prevent Human Injury

Participants scored an average of 73% when asked to identify if a horse was showing signs of conflict. But when asked to specify how the horse was indicating conflict, the score dropped to 54.5%, she said.

Photo: Photos.com

Bites, kicks, stomps, falls—there are plenty of ways people can get hurt around horses. But how many of these accidents are preventable? One Danish researcher believes that with improved understanding of equine behavior, riders both novice and experienced can avoid potentially harmful horse situations.

Denmark might be a small country, but it's home to 170,000 horses, 140,000 riders, and 500 registered riding schools. Each year, 5.8% (9,000, most of which are children 10-15 years old) of Danish riders enter an emergency room as a result of their horse hobbies, said Payana Hendriksen, of the Danish Animal Welfare Society, during the 9th Annual International Society for Equitation Science, held July 18-20 at the University of Delaware, in Newark.

Half of the accidents occur due to falls, but the other half "happen while the rider is standing next to the horse (e.g., being bitten, kicked, squeezed), presumably as a result of the rider misinterpreting the behavior of the horse," Hendriksen explained.

Because of the limited equine behavior education offered in Danish riding schools, the Danish Animal Welfare Society created a website to both teach riders about and test their understanding of horse behavior.

"The aim of the study was to achieve an overview of the knowledge of Danish riders across geographical regions, age groups, and experience levels concerning equine behavior," Hendriksen said, adding that they hoped to identify specific holes in understanding.

In the preliminary study she and colleagues analyzed test results from 4,539 online participants and found that, on average, riders scored 72.5% correct. While they saw no difference among regions, they noted that the youngest (5-14 years) and oldest (60-90) age groups scored lowest, earning average scores of 59% and 41%, respectively. Women also performed better than men, earning an average score of 74%.

"The younger you are, the worse you do (on the test)," Hendriksen said. "As you age, you get better, with the best scores from riders in their 30s."

She also noted a correlation between how much a rider claimed to know and how well he or she scored on the test. "The higher the riders considered their own experience level the better the test results," she explained, and vice versa.

Interestingly, she said, scores from riders who considered themselves experts (76.2%) in horse behavior didn't differ greatly from those who considered themselves having high (75%) or average (72.4%) experience levels.

Hendriksen found holes in riders' knowledge in identifying specific types of conflict behavior. "When asked if a horse was showing signs of conflict, the participants scored an average of 73%," she said. "But when asked to specify how the horse was indicating conflict, the score dropped to 54.5%."

In summary, Hendriksen determined that:

  • Young riders have the lowest understanding of behavior and the highest number of horse-related accidents;
  • Young riders have the best understanding of their own experience level; and 
  • Danish riders have a good overall understanding of behavior, with some limitations (e.g., identifying specific behavior types).

"Many accidents in the horse sector presumably happen due to a misinterpretation of the horse," Hendriksen said in conclusion. "This study found that especially the younger and the older riders have deficiencies in their knowledge of horse behavior, and many riders have an incorrect idea of their own level of experience."

She suggested that, going forward, riding schools should place more emphasis on teaching their students about equine behavior in an effort to safeguard both human and horse participants.

About the Author

Alexandra Beckstett, The Horse Managing Editor

Alexandra Beckstett, Managing Editor of The Horse and a native of Houston, Texas, is a lifelong horse owner who has shown successfully on the national hunter/jumper circuit and dabbled in hunter breeding. After graduating from Duke University, she joined Blood-Horse Publications as Assistant Editor of its book division, Eclipse Press, before joining The Horse.

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