‘Being brave’ can affect horse and rider safety and welfare *H&H Plus*

  • This comprehensive study of riders found they seem to revel in the idea of risk, and that fear is not seen as something that should affect riders’ decision-making. H&H finds out the impact this could have on both horse and rider

    RIDERS who are pushed to be “brave” and “get tough” to overcome issues could be putting their own and their horses’ safety and welfare at risk.

    Rosie Jones McVey’s research into equestrians’ bravery and its implications, published in journal Animals, was based on 14 months spent with 35 riders.

    Social anthropologist Dr Jones McVey told H&H that as a trainer who travelled a great deal with Kelly Marks of Intelligent Horsemanship, she experienced a wide range of ideas and information, and so became used to “putting on different hats” and changing her language, depending on the people and horses she was working with.

    This led her to her subject, and her PhD on the ethics of British horse people. Her time spent researching the PhD led to this paper.

    “It was a chance to say something I hoped would help people,” she said.

    The study report states that some of the subjects “seemed to revel” in the physical risks of riding. It adds that fear was seen as something that should not affect riders’ decision-making; “riders should… respond to recognised risk with pragmatism and gumption”.

    But Dr Jones McVey said most of her subjects had confidence issues of some sort.

    “Despite their anxieties, they kept on riding,” the paper states. “‘Horsiness’ was too deep a part of who they were. It was too painfully wrenching to consider a life without horses.”

    Dr Jones McVey said rider “bravery” came to the fore if the horse was being “naughty”, at which point trainers might berate the rider to “get tough”; interpreting the horse’s behaviour as defiant, and the rider’s as “wimping out”.

    “I heard things like ‘He’s laughing at you and so are we’; almost bullying the rider into bullying the horse.”

    Dr Jones McVey said this approach sometimes works, and a bit of shouting can motivate. Some riders, having become cross, “kicked like hell” and succeeded, can feel validated as a “real horse person”.

    “That’s where it gets complicated,” she said. “I want people to think, ‘Is this helping, or have I stumbled into feeling it’s normal, but I don’t want to feel I have to either hit my horse or be terrified’. If they feel they might be better in a different learning environment, it might help to make changes. That’s not to say no one should be told to kick on, but I don’t want them to feel the only way to move on is humiliation.”

    A consequence of “getting tough” was often that the rider punished the horse, with whip, reins or spurs.

    “Apart from physical punishment, there’s the welfare concern of pushing horses to do things they weren’t ready for,” she said. “And if a rider’s ‘being tough’, they’re more likely to miss a step. The decision-making capacity of riders being tough on themselves is less good for equine welfare.

    “It can be exhilarating, to kick on and get tough, and it might work. But if it doesn’t, the horse has a bad experience and you might be injured. A horse’s education is worth more than a gamble.”

    The report concludes by stating that programs that aim to help riders develop confidence without instilling a sense of “battle” with the horse, or ridiculing the rider, are likely to have positive implications for equine welfare and human safety.

    Vet Gemma Pearson, Horse Trust director of equine behaviour, told H&H the report highlights many behavioural issues she sees. She gave an example of a video she was sent of a competent but nervous rider on a napping horse.

    “You can hear the instructor saying ‘Give it a hot bottom’ and ‘Turn the whip upside-down and make it go forwards’,” she said. “The horse completely switched off and was standing there in a state but the instructor was still angry. The horse had kissing spines.

    “I see it so often; people won’t get a vet or behaviourist as there’s pressure from people at the yard, saying ‘She’s just scared’ or ‘She’s looking for an excuse not to ride’. I do see some horses where the rider’s confidence is the issue but 80% of them that present with dangerous behaviour have an underlying pain cause.”

    Ms Pearson said another issue with “being brave” can be riders’ being told, or thinking they must, get back on after a fall.

    “It’s different if, say, the horse puts in a big jump and you come off; getting back on is the best thing for confidence, but most of the time I’ve seen bad cases, it’s when someone’s got back on. The horse is full of adrenaline, unsure what’s happened but knowing the thing that took the pressure away was getting the rider off. The scared rider is told to get on with it, and the horse thinks ‘This is scary’ and does the same thing as before, but because of the adrenaline, a lot bigger.

    “A sad thing is that people don’t want to get vets or behaviourists as they think people will say they’re ‘just scared’, so they stop riding altogether.”

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