Is Horse Riding Cruel?
There remains a huge misconception that horses are wild animals
I was put in a saddle when I was four years old, and from then into my early twenties, it was difficult to get me off one (it remains the only thing I’ll voluntarily wake up at 5 am for) - which is perhaps the only qualification I have to address the issue of horse riding and animal cruelty.
Every time I post a photo or video of horses - be it my 29 year old (!!) retired chestnut in his stall or a new filly we’ve just begun working - I’m invariably confronted with this question: “isn’t horse riding cruel?”
“Isn’t keeping your dog on a leash while you walk her cruel?” I first type out, just to establish how absurd the question is. I then have to remind myself that most people have little knowledge of the equine world - and there remains a huge misconception that horses are wild animals.
The modern horse is a domesticated animal - much like your cute labrador Simba. While the dog evolved from the wolf, the modern horse has evolved from strains of wild horses.
Humans began domesticating horses around 4000 BC, with domestication widespread by 3000 BC. Just as there are different breeds of dogs -- from your cutie Simba to your neighbour’s little Chihuahua and your aunt’s giant Great Dane -- there are different breeds of horses (more than 300 different horse breeds fyi).
Wild horses - believe it or not - don’t really exist anymore. Some horses do live in the wild - but the term wild horse is used to describe horses that have never been domesticated, and are a separate sub-species. The only true remaining wild horse breed is the nearly extinct Przewalski's horse (it has 66 chromosomes compared to 64 in all other horse species). Other so-called ‘wild horses’ are just domesticated horses that live in the wild - kind of like a population of cute Simbas in a forest.
Domestication is a difficult (and boring) subject - so we’ll avoid getting into the details, but for the purpose of this article let’s just say that the process involves a trade off. Dogs were domesticated to provide us with herding and hunting assistance, and in turn received protection, shelter, and a reliable food source. More accurately put, wolves - or the friendlier among them - began living near humans, and through thousands of years of breeding, this friendlier co-dependent gene was selected to give us the modern, domestic dog.
It’s been a similar process with horses. Horses first appear in paleolithic cave art as early as 30,000 BC - but these were wild horses and were hunted for meat. Somewhere along the way, horses figured that humans can provide shelter and protection, and in turn, pulled our chariots and let us ride them - initially as a means of transport, and later even into war (poor things probably hadn’t signed up for that part of the deal).
Domestication then isn’t just taming an animal - it includes physiological changes associated with being selectively bred in captivity; a process which gives us the domestic dog, cat (seriously though, what have cats provided in return?) and horse.
The elephant that takes you for a ride isn’t a domesticated animal … It’s a wild animal that has been tamed. If - over thousands and thousands of years - elephants lived and worked with humans and bred in captivity, passing on genes that were conducive to this partnership, you’d have a domestic elephant. That’s not going to happen.
The Zebra is not a domestic animal. We don’t know exactly why, but the Zebra was never domesticated - which might seem like a huge act of resistance, but hasn’t worked out too well for the species in the long run. Zebra populations are dwindling - faced with poachers and shrinking habitats, while the horse population has thrived; horses chose the winning side - and as we said right at the beginning, domestication is a trade off.
So now that we know that the horse is *not* a wild animal - let’s get back to the question: Is horse riding cruel?
The simplest answer that I can offer is that just as you can be cruel to your dog -- by keeping her chained, not feeding her regularly, hitting her or even just ignoring her -- you can be cruel to a horse.
That aspect of cruelty aside -- riding is actually beneficial for domestic horses. Anyone who rides knows that there’s a difference between horses that are being ridden regularly, and horses that are alternated between stall and pasture. Think of it like the difference between someone who goes to the gym four-five times a week, and someone who lazes about pretty much all day.
Horses are more than capable of carrying riders - their spines have evolved to carry weight - so as long as the rider isn’t too large for the horse, there’s no discomfort in that sense.
Of course, bad riders can cause discomfort -- by pulling at the bit, flapping their legs about, giving entirely confusing cues. And horses will let it be known that they’re in pain -- they’ll jerk, buck, rear, and refuse to cooperate with a bad rider.
I always say good riding looks like the rider is doing nothing -- because that’s when your skill as a rider is at display... to give your horse the gentle cues it needs.
Which brings me to my other pet peeve - the perception that it’s the horse that does all the work. There’s a big difference between sitting on a horse and riding a horse, with the latter taking years of skill development.
And your horse knows this. People undervalue the partnership between rider and horse -- as asking an animal that’s somewhere close to ten times your size to jump over a high fence or pirouette in the middle of an arena is an honour you earn.
Horses will give you this honour only if they trust and respect you - and that’s almost always linked to your skill as a rider. It’s also linked to your empathy as a human being -- how you treat the horse and her friends when you’re out of the saddle, and the rest, recovery and grazing (aka fun) time you build into the her day.
Horses are several times the rider’s size - weighing anywhere from 400kg to even a 1000kg. There is a huge amount of skill, trust and respect that makes the partnership between a human being and a horse look effortless. Cruelty has no place in this partnership - and sooner or later, your horse will let that be known.
This is true of everyday, leisure riding, and perhaps even more so when it comes to competitive riding. Horses competing at the top level perform better if they enjoy what they’re doing -- be it scaling 2 metre high jump obstacles, executing a perfect passage or even trying to beat all the other horses on a race track.
To elaborate, good race horses are horses that prefer running at the front of the herd - so it’s actually fun for them to outrace the others (most horses prefer the middle of the herd - where it’s safer, and are followers not leaders; just you try getting one of them to win a race). The race itself isn’t cruel -- but other aspects of the sport can be, be it overworking the horse, stabling conditions, or how frequently they are transported for races.
Oh and by the way, horses actually like their stables - provided they have access to food and water and are not cooped in all day. If they’re spooked -- which happens often as they’re flight not fight animals -- they’ll make a dash for the one place they think they’ll be safe: their stall (hopefully you manage to calm them down and stop them en route, which itself takes some skill).
Happy horses have very visible signs - high tail, rounded hinds, a spring in their step -- they might still occasionally buck or spook, but what’s a partnership that’s not frequently tested? How you react to your horse testing you will further the relationship and reinforce your horse’s trust and respect. Unhappy horses will resist, rear, buck frequently, bite and generally not cooperate - and beating them into submission isn’t going to change that.
What I’m trying to say is -- riding is actually integral to the modern horse’s health and happiness, provided it takes into consideration the horse’s temperament and fitness levels, and is complemented with love (and lots of carrots).