The ethics of horseback riding is a topic that I have been considering for quite some time. While I cannot even begin to pretend to have the answer, I think it is an important discussion for us to have. I think that both proponents of riding and those against it would benefit from releasing harsh judgements and looking at this topic from a broad perspective.
Proponents of riding will say that horses need to have a job and that they enjoy their work. Horses have been bred for various disciplines, much like dogs, and have a propensity to do certain tasks. Owning horses is an expensive and time consuming endeavor, and in return for caring for them, it is nice to be able to enjoy riding. Many riders feel like they have a strong bond with their mount and that their chosen discipline is enjoyable and of benefit for both horse and human.
Those who are against riding believe that horses were not designed to be ridden and it is not within the human’s right to have dominion over them. Horses do not need a job or love being ridden. Furthermore, the equipment that is used on horses is painful, damaging, and in some cases out right abusive. Studies have been shown that bits cause intense pain by acting on fascial nerves and saddles exert immense pressure on the tissues in the back, causing pain and damage to the horse for the enjoyment of the rider. That is to say nothing of training methods, whips, spurs, and other equipment regularly used to train and ride horses.
I can see this argument from both sides and have swayed back and forth in my views over the years as to whether or not I felt that riding was humane. Part of the reason that I became an equine massage therapist, body worker, saddle fitter, and saddle flocker in my twenties, was because I saw the damage that our equipment can do to our horses. I took my personal horses bitless and toyed with bareback riding.
Recently, I came across some videos and information about just how damaging the saddle can be – even if it is fitted perfectly. (If you are interested in learning more, a starting point would be these videos: Scientific Evidence of the Harm of Horseback Riding OR Is Horse Riding Cruel?) I started to really question whether or not I should ever ride again or teach others about riding.
While it is easy to judge something, what I have known from thirty years of riding and working with horses is that some horses genuinely seem to love their jobs. There are those that just seem born to jump and others who have a lot of cow in them. Some horses do seem to get restless when they don’t have a job – and for good reason. Horses are designed to roam. Without a job, many are left to spend their whole lives in a small paddock without much stimulation.
That is not to say that all horses enjoy being ridden or need to have a job. Just as every person has a different personality, interests, and natural proclivities, so do horses. Some may be perfectly happy to never do anything while others want to interact. I had a mare who was impossible to ride at home. She was the spookiest nightmare to ride until she passed through the gates into the show ring. Then, like an absolute diva, she would go into the perfect hunter frame and kick her little toes out, and jump every fence in perfect form. She loved to be in the spotlight and win ribbons. Really!
But, what about the pain that we are inflicting on horses by riding? This is certainly an interesting question. As responsible horse owners, it is up to us to navigate this terrain carefully. Saddles must fit as well as you can get them. I personally prefer bitless, but in some disciplines, like dressage, that is not an option. So, it is up to us to learn how to have soft hands and use the equipment in our possession compassionately. We must learn to develop an inner calm so that we do not lash out and cause our horse unnecessary pain and suffering.
Even if we have soft hands, perfect balance, and a temper that we keep in check, there is very likely still some discomfort that happens for the horses. I don’t think that is enough to deter all horses from enjoying their work. Think about how much human athletes are willing to push their bodies for the joy of sport. Ballerinas dance on pointe with bloody feet, runners push through blisters and chaffing, riders get back on before their broken bones have healed.
Just because horses can get injured or experience some discomfort because of the sport that we do with them, does not automatically make it inhumane, in my opinion. I think one of the things that we must really begin to look at is a concept seldom considered – consent. Is your horse saying no to your requests? Do you honor that or view it as training issue that you must work past? Are you coercing, manipulating, forcing, or dominating your horse? Or do you have a willing partner who works with you and is in tune with your same desires for fun and companionship?
The topic of consent is bigger than what I can get into in this article, but I want to plant the seed to start thinking about it. I believe that with consent, compassion, and strong riding and training skills, riding can be an enjoyable activity for both horse and human. However, without those basic tenets in place I certainly think that riding can become harmful – even abusive. It is up to each of us to take responsibility for the choice we make when working with animals who cannot voice their desire.