Is Horse Riding Cruel? Exploring the Ethics and Realities

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Have you ever wondered if horse riding is cruel? Is there an ethical way to do it? Do vegans dare to ride horses? Spoiler alert: Yes, some vegans ride horses, and that’s okay.

The ethics of horse riding are highly debatable and somewhat controversial. On one hand, you have die-hard horse fans who invest copious amounts of money and time looking after their beloved pets. On the other side of the spectrum, you have people who breed, train, and trade horses purely for financial gain—no matter the cost to the horse.

This guide will cover a brief history of horse riding, whether horses actually feel pain when ridden, before assessing the ethical nuances of horseback riding.

Horse Domestication: Are There Any Wild Horses Left?

The word “horse” comes from the Latin “Equus” or Greek “hippos.” These large animals, with adults weighing between 400 and 1,200 kilograms, were initially hunted for meat before becoming domesticated. Horses have been domesticated for around 6,000 years, and today, they are one of the most popular pets in the world, with over 60 million horses worldwide and more than 300 different breeds.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many wild horses today due to domestication, despite a small number in Central Asia. However, there are around 600,000 feral horses, descendants of domesticated horses, with Australia having the largest population of feral horses, called Brumbies.

The Different Types of Horse Riding

Before delving into the ethics of horse riding, it’s essential to define the various forms of horse riding to understand the industry’s cruelty better. Common types of horse riding include:

  1. Riding Lessons: A prevalent activity among children who want to learn how to ride horses.
  2. Horse Racing: A sport where jockeys train and race horses in competition.
  3. Eventing: A team consisting of one horse and rider competes against others for points in disciplines like dressage, cross country, and show jumping.
  4. Trail Riding: Similar to going for a hike with a horse in a natural setting.
  5. Entertainment: Horses trained to feature in films and music videos.
  6. Transportation: Some remote villages rely on horseback riding as their primary mode of transportation.

Beyond riding, horses are used for work activities, including plowing, hauling, and other heavy-duty labor, coining the phrase “workhorse.”

Why Is Riding Considered Good for Horses?

As we can’t directly communicate with horses, it’s challenging to determine whether riding is a good or bad experience for them. However, there are three common arguments for why riding is considered healthy for horses:

  1. Riding Can Be an Effective Form of Exercise: Horses are genetically programmed to move regularly, and riding can provide the exercise needed to build muscle, stamina, and release endorphins.
  2. Riding Can Provide Stimulation and Enjoyment: Reading a horse’s body language can provide insight into their mood. Relaxed nostrils, loose lips, lower jaw, and a freely swinging tail are signs of a happy horse.
  3. Horses Get Food, Shelter, and Protection in Exchange for Riding Services: Domesticated horses have much to gain from a caring human relationship, including food, shelter, grooming, veterinary care, and companionship.

Do Horses Feel Pain When Ridden?

Horses can feel varying degrees of pain and discomfort when ridden, depending on various factors such as health conditions, age, rider experience, rider weight and height, and more. Lameness is a term used to describe a horse’s change in gait usually in response to pain or mechanical restrictions.

Dr. Sue Dyson, an equine vet, developed an ethogram with 24 markers to determine horse lameness and pain when ridden. The threshold for lameness using this scoring system is 8/24, where scores less than 8 indicate a non-lame horse, while scores greater than 8 indicate lameness.

Studies have shown that a significant percentage of horses experience increased pain and discomfort when ridden. Other factors, like rider weight and type of saddle or gear, can influence these scores.

Is It Cruel to Ride Horses?

Based on the evidence that horses can feel pain and discomfort when ridden, it raises ethical questions about horseback riding. Horses, at least before training, do not naturally want to be ridden, and research shows that riding can cause lameness and discomfort. Competitive horses often undergo extensive training and are pushed out of their comfort zones.

While there are considerate horse lovers who treat their animals exceptionally well, they represent only a fraction of the industry. Many owners and some veterinarians may not be skilled at recognizing lameness in horses, further perpetuating the problem.

Breeding practices add to the ethical dilemma, as horses are often bred into captive environments where they are expected to perform and be ridden. While adopting horses from less fortunate situations is a noble endeavor, supporting a cycle of breeding horses for performance and aesthetic preferences, knowing that they don’t naturally want to be ridden, is considered by many as cruel.

In What Situation Is It Ethical to Ride Horses?

Given the history of horse domestication and their role in human activities, it’s challenging to eliminate riding altogether. However, there are criteria for more ethical horseback riding:

  1. Adopt Don’t Shop: Consider adopting horses rather than supporting breeding practices that result in an oversupply of domesticated animals.
  2. Provide a Fulfilling Environment: Allow horses to interact with others, roam freely, and forage for food, which aligns with the 3 F’s (friends, freedom, food).
  3. Educate Yourself: Understand the lameness signals of your horse and avoid crossing the pain threshold during riding.

Meeting these criteria can lead to safer, cruelty-free horseback riding, but it requires a significant commitment. For those unable to meet these standards, abstaining from riding horses altogether might be the best way to avoid potential harm.

In conclusion, while horses may live more enriched lives in the wild, the history of domestication and breeding necessitates sophisticated practices to reduce pain and discomfort when riding. The ethical debate surrounding horseback riding continues, and it’s up to riders and the industry to ensure the well-being of these majestic animals.

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