Prevalence of Horse Behavior Problems Under Saddle Evaluated

Prevalence of Horse Behavior Problems Under Saddle Evaluated

Although, as many as 91% of leisure riding horses exhibit some sort of behavior problem regularly, dangerous behaviors were rarely reported, researchers say; rearing, for instance, was only reported in 7% of the population.


We read about researchers studying behavior problems in horses. We hear about trainers and “horse whisperers” that can fix these problems. But we really didn’t have a clear idea of how prevalent these problems in riding horses are—nor how frequently riders use special tack and equipment to help control them. We do now, thanks to a British researcher.

As many as 91% of leisure riding horses in the United Kingdom exhibit some sort of behavior problem under saddle on a regular basis, said Jo S. Hockenhull, PhD, of the School of Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol, England.

In the study, Hockenhull explained that behavior problems in riding horses in the U.K. could compromise the use of those horses in a leisure fashion and possibly lead to riders selling mounts that behave poorly under saddle. To better understand the prevalence of behavior problems, Hockenhull created an online survey about behavior under saddle that owners of 1,326 horses completed over the course of one year. The survey asked respondents to think only back to the previous week when answering the questions on a scale of 1 to 5 (“never” to “frequently”). The vast majority (91%) reported some sort of problem behavior.

Of the 1,326 horses, 78% were ridden with artificial aids—such as martingales, whips, or flash nosebands—to control their behavior, she said.

According to Hockenhull, this could be reason for concern.

“Poor riding may lead to the development of behavioral problems or learned helplessness in ridden horses, and these problems may be exacerbated as the owner attempts to address the problem by increasing the intensity of the aids or the complexity of the tack used to control the horse,” she said. Horses with ongoing or increasing ridden behavior problems are at greater risk of changing hands or euthanasia, she added.

Even so, most of the ridden behavior problems in the study revealed minor issues that were more likely to be “irritating to a rider rather than dangerous,” Hockenhull said. Bucking was rare (only 17% of the horses), and rearing and bolting were very rare (7% and 3%, respectively). The most common problems were shying (50%)—which can be dangerous if it’s violent, she added—along with walking off before the rider has finished getting in the saddle (46%) and pulling or leaning on the bit (45%).

The good news, however, is that overall, leisure riders—at least in the U.K.—seem quite good at caring for their horses’ health and maintenance. A full 97% of the horses received annual dental exams, and more than a third received semiannual exams. Furthermore, 88% of the riders had had their horse’s saddle professionally checked for fit, and 61% had them professionally rechecked as often as once a year.

Hockenhull admitted that her results might be slightly affected by the survey's voluntary design. Only people willingly responding to her requests to complete the online survey—through emails, online forum postings, and paper leaflets in riding stables—were included in the study.

“All the behaviors we included in the survey had been reported as problems in popular equestrian literature,” Hockenhull said. “While the current rider may not have an issue with them, for someone else they may pose a big challenge, and this could have welfare implications.”

Horses with unwanted behaviors have a reduced chance of finding a good permanent home, according to Hockenhull. “We owe it to our horses to not let problems get this out of hand,” she said.

The study, "The use of equipment and training practices and the prevalence of owner-reported ridden behaviour problems in U.K. leisure horses," appeared in January in the Equine Veterinary Journal.

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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