By Jo Hockenhull, PhD

This article is published in Issue 6 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.

With the exception of racing, dressage is the equestrian activity that seems to have come under the most criticism and scrutiny from those concerned about equine welfare. Much of this stems from the perception that dressage riders are often rewarded for training practices and riding styles that are likely to be aversive for horses. This aversion can be expressed through the horse’s behaviour and may reflect pain associated with pressure from the tack and/or rider as well as confusion from contradictory aids (also known as conflict behaviour). Recognised conflict behaviours include tail swishing, head movements, including the head being carried behind the vertical, and tension in the head and neck. Such behaviours suggest that the horses expressing them may not be the ‘happy athletes’ that the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) promotes in their dressage guidelines.

The subjective nature of dressage judging adds a further element of criticism to this sport. Whatever the FEI rhetoric states, horses exhibiting conflict behaviours and carrying their heads behind the vertical frequently receive high marks from dressage judges. The aim of this paper was to investigate the occurrence of conflict behaviour in sub-elite British Dressage competitions (Elementary, Novice and Preliminary levels), and to evaluate whether the scores the riders received for each movement within their test took these behaviours into account. Seventy-five horse-rider combinations were observed. The scores awarded by judges and the behaviour and posture of the horses were recorded at the level of individual test movements. In total 447 movements were analysed.

The researchers found that the scores judges gave were correlated with some conflict behaviours but not others. The more overt ‘whole body’ conflict behaviours such as napping, bucking, spooking and behaviours not cued by the rider, were correlated with lower scores for that movement. However, the same was not true for more subtle behaviours – those involving the mouth, tail and poll to withers angle – which did not correlate with the judges scores. This suggests that some conflict behaviours are more easily recognised, observed and/or taken into account by dressage judges. Different conflict behaviours were seen more in different movements, e.g. tension in the mouth was more common in downward transitions, while tail swishing and head movements were observed more in upward transitions. Some associations were found between items of equipment and certain behaviours – tail swishing was associated with flash nosebands, and the horse’s nose being behind the vertical was associated with the rider wearing spurs. While it should be noted that these are associations rather than casual relationships, they may warrant further investigation.

This study provides evidence that equine conflict behaviours in dressage movements are often not taken into consideration by judges in their scoring. Furthermore, some conflict behaviours seem to be recognised in judges’ scores while some do not. Dressage judges have a very short amount of time to evaluate and score individual movements within a dressage test. These findings suggest that some behavioural signs of pain or confusion are either not being picked up on or are observed but are not deemed relevant. Either way, the study provides further evidence that the current system of dressage judging needs to be improved if the sport is to better promote the welfare of its equine competitors.

Hamilton KL, Lancaster BE, Hall C. (2022) Equine conflict behaviors in dressage and their relationship to performance evaluation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 55:48-57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2022.07.011

This article is published in Issue 6 of the CONCORDIA INTERNATIONAL EQUESTRIAN MAGAZINE – the current issue and archived issues are free to download and read online.