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Dr. Jo – Husbandry, Use, and Orthopedic Health of Horses

Dittmann MT, Latif SN, Hefti R, Hartnack S, Hungerbühler V, Weishaupt MA (2020) Husbandry, Use, and Orthopedic Health of Horses Owned by Competitive and Leisure Riders in Switzerland. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 91: 103107 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jevs.2020.103107

It is a sad truth that there is nobody like horse people for criticising what other members of the equestrian community do with their horses. Whether it is other owners at the same livery yard managing their horse in a different way from the ‘norm’, people involved in other disciplines or people following the ideas and recommendations of different trainers, vets or experts than those used by the majority. It is true to say that sometimes equestrian activities attract more debate from within equestrianism than they do from without. Moreover, we are recognising more and more that equestrian activity relies on a social licence to operate. If members of the public voice concerns about aspects of equestrian pursuits and their impact on equine welfare, we risk losing this licence and the accepted use of horses in sport and recreation.

It is not often that we have comparable data to look at where the similarities and differences lie between different sectors of our equestrian community, but this is exactly what these Swiss researchers achieved in this study recently published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. In an online survey completed by 237 owners, they asked respondents to categorise themselves as either competitive riders (CR) or leisure riders (LR). Owners were asked a series of questions about their horse’s husbandry and health as well as the training they did with their horse and the tack they used. The participating owners were also given the opportunity to have their horses and saddle examined by veterinarians.

In total 113 self-classified leisure riders, and 135 self-classified competitive riders completed the survey. Leisure riders were slightly older than CR, although they had been riding for similar amounts of time. LR had a higher ratio of rider weight to horse weight something that has been associated with lameness in other studies. That said, the average ratio reported in this study (12±2.3%) falls within the ‘light’ rider category used in other studies, so the ratios found in the leisure riders may not be a concern. Unsurprisingly, there were differences in the breeds used by the two rider groups, with CR having a higher proportion of Warmblood horses. The LR had been with their current equine partners for longer than the CR, again not an unexpected finding given the likely differences in the motivation and relationships between these two rider groups and their horses.

When it came to how the horses were managed there were similarities in the amount of forage the horses consumed and the amount of turn-out they had, although more competition horses were turned-out alone in comparison to leisure horses who tended to share their space with other horses. Competition horses also received more concentrate feed, likely reflecting the increased energy demands made on them as these horses were also ridden more often and had more regular training sessions with an instructor. Most CR used two saddles with their horse, compared with the one used by LR, and CR also used training aids (typically martingales and spurs) while LR didn’t use any. Leisure horses were more frequently un-shod and had the fit of their saddle checked longer ago than competitive horses. When the saddles were examined, nearly three-quarters of the saddles had a least one problem with their fit, and the proportion of these issues was slightly higher in LR than CR.

When the horses’ health was assessed the only difference found between the two groups was that more of the leisure horses were overweight. Other issues did not differ significantly between the two groups:  when viewed overall 32% had been previously diagnosed with orthopaedic health problems, 54% showed gait irregularity in at least one leg, 95% had some issues with muscular development, and 35% showed pain when their back was palpated.

The findings of this study are highly concerning. While few overt differences between the two groups were found, they demonstrate that numerous issues that are likely to greatly compromise equine welfare are widespread in both populations. And this is in a sample of riders that you may expect to be more concerned with their horses’ health and welfare as they volunteered to participate in a research study on that subject. It is possible that levels are even higher in facets of the population not represented in this sample.

Although leisure horses received a more ‘natural life’ in terms of their free access to other horses, lower use of concentrate feeds and lower level of shoe use, these horses were more likely to be overweight which has significant welfare implications. They were also more likely to have their saddles checked more infrequently and to have more issues with saddle fit, although interestingly this did not correspond with a greater incidence of back pain in this sample. In comparison to the physical welfare compromises found in leisure horses, psychological wellbeing was more greatly compromised in competition horses through their lack of opportunities for social contact. Overall, the findings demonstrate that there are prevalent welfare concerns in both groups of horses, and these must be addressed.

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