Discomfort affects performance of grassroots event horses, study finds

  • EVENTERS that show the least signs of musculoskeletal discomfort are most likely to be highly placed, a study has found.

    Sue Dyson, former head of clinical orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust, applied the previously validated ridden horse pain ethogram (RHpE) to 1,010 starters in British Eventing (BE) 90, 100 and novice classes in 2021. She had already found an association between ethogram score and performance in five-star eventing, and grand prix dressage.

    The ethogram comprises 24 behaviours such as repeated tail-swishing, laid-back ears and an open mouth, the presence of eight or more of which may indicate that the horse has musculoskeletal pain. Of the 1,010 starts, Dr Dyson found the most frequent, median, RHpE score was four — five at BE90, four at BE100 and 3.5 at novice — and that horses placed first to third had a lower median score, of two, than others who completed.

    The proportion of horses with a RHpE score of or above eight was lowest (2%) in those placed first to third, followed by horses with lower finish placings (9.9%), and highest in those eliminated, retired or withdrawn (11.3%).

    Dr Dyson told H&H her research at five-star level had shown horses with scores of seven or more were about twice as likely to be retired or eliminated across country, and she wanted to compare this to lower levels.

    “I feel very strongly that the equestrian world is facing a bit of a crisis in respect of social licence,” she said. “We need to be proactive, and to be seen to be proactive, and I thought if we could show that a large proportion of horses have relatively low RHpE scores, that’s in favour of allowing horses to continue in competition.”

    Dr Dyson also wants to help make people aware that some competition horses could perform better, as well as being more comfortable, if people realise their discomfort exists.

    “I saw many people being told to kick more or use longer spurs or a different bit, when their horses had discomfort,” she said, adding that amateur riders often blame themselves for performance problems that may be pain-related. “

    “If horses were investigated and appropriately treated, they could potentially perform better. We showed very clearly in this that the horses who performed best consistently had lower RHpE scores than lower-placed horses or those who failed to finish, and that speaks for itself.”

    Dr Dyson added that there was no correlation between higher RHpE scores and showjumping performance. Horses in discomfort are often more likely first to show compromised jumping performance when going downhill, for example, or into water. She said before the study, she did not know if there would be a correlation between RHpE and cross-country scores.

    “For many horses at these lower levels, the cross-country is relatively simple,” she said. “But these results highlight that even at these levels, discomfort affects performance.”

    World Horse Welfare CEO Roly Owers told H&H horse sport’s social licence applies to all internations with horses, at all levels and in all disciplines.

    “Any tool that can help us gauge the comfort of our horses and assess whether they can fulfil their jobs – regardless of what this is – is to be welcomed,” he said.

    “The RHpE, through providing a scientific score, is one such tool, which if used correctly cannot help but support equestrianism’s social licence. It is no surprise that there is an association between a credible pain score and performance, so making sure our horses are comfortable when ridden is not only good for horses, but good for the rider too.”

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