Welfare revisited.

Since writing the first article on the subject of welfare the FEI have updated the code of practice, so it seemed a good idea to revisit the subject.

So let’s start with the new code: 

for the Welfare of the Horse

1.       The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) expects all those involved in international equestrian sport to adhere to the FEI’s Code of Conduct and to acknowledge and accept that at all times the welfare of the horse must be paramount and must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.

2.       At all stages during the preparation and training of competition horses, welfare must take precedence over all other demands. This includes good horse management, training methods, farriery and tack, and transportation.

3.       Horses and competitors must be fit, competent and in good health before they are allowed to compete. This encompasses medication use, surgical procedures that threaten welfare or safety, pregnancy in mares and the misuse of aids.

4.       Events must not prejudice horse welfare. This involves paying careful attention to the competition areas, ground surfaces, weather conditions, stabling, site safety and fitness of the horse for onward travel after the event.

5.       Every effort must be made to ensure that horses receive proper attention after they have competed and that they are treated humanely when their competition careers are over. This covers proper veterinary care, competition injuries, euthanasia and retirement.

The FEI urges all involved with the sport to attain the highest levels of education in their areas of expertise.


In order to introduce a range of views to the debate several specialists were interviewed at Haras de la Cense, France, in September 06. Before we get into this I think it’s only fair to say that none of the interviewees are authors of the FEI code – so they have no responsibility for what it says, nor any obligation to agree with it - with one caveat: if they are FEI members then, in theory at the very least, they are bound by it.

Dr. Yves Bertrand

Medical training, specialising in anaesthesia, human intensive medicine and intensive care, with particular interest in the brain. He has pursued a complementary training in ethology. His practice of equitation was inspired first by Pat Parelli and then by the equitation centre Haras de la Cense, in France.

 Marie-France Bouissou  

Now retired, she was formerly the research director at INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research) specialising in ethology, and particularly in the behaviour of domesticated ungulates: cattle, sheep, and horses.

Andy Booth

Born in 1970 in New South Wales, Australia.  After his school years, he went to America to complete his training under Pat Parelli.  During his five years in the USA, he also rubbed shoulders with the “whisperers” Ray Hunt, Monty Roberts and Buck Brannaman.  These days Andy, as director of pedagogy, teaches at the equestrian centre Haras de la Cense, in France.

Andrew McLean

Completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne. His specialist academic areas are Animal Mentality and Horse Training Psychology.  Andrew is an accomplished and successful competition rider in Eventing, Dressage and Jumping and has trained and competed at FEI level. He has also held an Australian racing licence. Andrew has a strong interest in disseminating the science behind horse training to the equestrian world. 

And here are those interviews – to which I've added comments.

Do you agree that being kept in solitary isolation is most likely to make a horse unhappy?

Dr. Yves Bertrand : Clinically, this is based on simple observation, and there is a net difference between horses which are kept isolated and boxed for 23 hours, and horses that live on the prairie. In order to state that all solitary horses are miserable, an objective study would first be necessary.  There may be horses that suffer because of their isolation. It is probably not the case with every single horse.

Marie-France Bouissou : To isolate a horse from its fellows goes against its fundamental needs.  To live enclosed in a box removes the horse from its natural conditions and also creates ill-health that can be measured by certain biological and behavioural indices.

Andy Booth: I think that any horse would rather be with other horses but I understand that with very valuable horses a kind of isolation is necessary. If we have a very expensive horse and important competition the best you can do is to have other horses separated around that horse, but he shouldn’t be left in a box alone longer than half a day.

Andrew M Lean: There are quite a lot of studies that show that when horses are kept alone they tend to show more stereotypies and tend also to develop other behaviour problems than if they are kept in group-housing. Some of the competition horses need to be isolated to avoid injuries, but it’s best if they can have some kind of contact with other animals in the same stable. Good housing is certainly the best for the horse’s mental wellbeing.

These first responses immediately highlight the central problem with the code, which is that there is rarely complete agreement about even the basics of welfare. It seems like a no-brainer to suggest that good welfare for members of a social species requires that they have the company of others of their kind – but most answers suggest a response that is equivocal to some degree.

We are also directly confronted with the difficulties surrounding application of the code, which states: at all times the welfare of the horse must be paramount and must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences. Expensive horse = commercial influence, Important competition = competitive influence.

Do you think that being stabled is liable to cause high levels of stress and behavioural stereotypies, and is therefore counter to the horse’s wellbeing? 

Dr. Yves Bertrand :  The response varies according to the housing available to the horse. If you possess a box of sufficient size to allow movement, that lets the horses see each other, this is good. There is no comparison at all between that and keeping a horse in a box which is too small for it, isolated, away from any other horses, bedded only on straw and fed nothing but concentrates twice a day!

Marie-France Bouissou : One only observes stereotypies in horses that are kept boxed; however, it must be said, there are horses that do adapt quite well to life in a box, which shows that the good management of boxes is also important.  There are certain animals, the very sensitive ones, which find the conditions particularly difficult, and they will develop stereotypies of movement, or tics, like weaving, which all horsemen recognise. But our use of the term ‘stress’ should be moderated, because to speak of ‘stress’ implies that one has measured it, together with the indicators of stress, such as an elevated level of certain hormones. People put horses in boxes because that is the tradition.  That way, they always have the horse to hand, and clean. But effectively, life in a group is far better than anything else, even if they are only turned out in to a paddock together for some time each day.

 Andy Booth: A stable can be a nice place to be if it’s snowing or raining outside. It can also be a comfortable place where there is food and this kind of thing. But I don’t think that the horse should have to stay there for the whole day. I like to go to the paddock to catch the horse and walk with him to the stable when he wants to go there, so I don’t mind going there. I think that the horse can have this balance, like I like to go to the restaurant but just wouldn’t like to be shut in one. So I wouldn’t say that all stabling or to have a stable is a bad thing. I just think that the horse shouldn’t be kept there for a long period of time, should have appropriate design with windows towards the outside and should allow the horses at least to have some sort of contact.

Andrew McLean: Yes, that’s true but we have to recognise that through the centuries of breeding we’ve probably bred horses that cope better in stabled situations then perhaps the original wild horse. So some horses seem to manage to live in stables and are much happier then others, but there certainly is a percentage in those shape curves of those horses with different temperament and sensitivity.

Once again the answers are somewhat equivocal, even though the effects of social isolation are very well known. I must admit to a deep sense of unease when we start suggesting that we have changed such a very basic element of a social animal’s behaviour by selective breeding. Not only is there no scientific evidence for such a suggestion but what is known about the process of domestication suggests quite strongly that such elemental components of behaviour are the most resistant to change.

Perhaps the most honest comment was: “People put horses in boxes because that is the tradition.  That way, they always have the horse to hand, and clean.” But this makes it quite plain that the practice of stabling has far more to do with our convenience than the wellbeing of the horse – which is quite contrary to the code. 

Forced weaning causes stress and discontent in both foal and dam and is, therefore, counter to the horse’s wellbeing. Do you see any other solution?

Dr. Yves Bertrand: It all depends on what one understands by the word ‘weaning’, and on the manner in which it is done. In my opinion, Dr Miller’s method seems to be intrusive with regard to the foal, to the mare, to the relationship between mare and foal, and is possibly the basis for consequences in adulthood that make for difficult relationships with the horse. Therefore, I would be very careful about how I acted, and would progress slowly, taking very much into account the natural behaviour of the foal.

Marie-France Bouissou: Yes, separating the mare and foal is a time of enormous stress.  There are two possible solutions – on a particular day you separate the foal from its mother and that’s that, or, progressively separate them, keeping them apart for a little longer each day. One may think intuitively that the second method is kinder, or less brutal. But it has been shown in scientific experiments with sheep that, on the contrary, it is more disturbing and that a ‘clean break’ is better. There is one other solution which may, perhaps, be utopian, and that is to leave the foal with the mare. But in the case of a breeding farm, it is practically obligatory to wean at six months or a little over, because they want the mare to breed again the next year.

Andy Booth: The objective of a breeding farm is to have a foal every year, so I don’t see any other solution than taking the foal off the mother so the mother can be in condition to have another foal and I think the baby “drags” the mother down if it’s with her too long. Weaning is emotionally stressful, but I think that weaning is a period in a life of the horse when you can take advantage of the separation, to play an important role in your relationship with the horse and become terrible important for the young one. So, the horse wants to have contact with somebody; if it is no longer his mother, it can be a human.

Andrew McLean: Weaning of all animals is emotionally stressful and it is certainly more stressful to do it in one moment, there’s no doubt about that. In the wild, weaning is more progressive but I think you can also look at another point of view: Even in progressive weaning when the mother finally ‘tells’ the foal that he can’t drink any more because she has another foal at foot, the total period of stress for a longer time may be similar to the total amount of stress in the forced weaning.

The code does not specifically address this topic, but the first element of it certainly covers all issues related to wellbeing. We’ve covered the topic of ‘forced weaning’ thoroughly in the ‘starting the young horse’ article, but there are a couple of other comments that could be added here. The first is that the requirement that mares produce a foal each and every year is entirely commercial. So, whether you believe forced weaning to be essential in order to produce this outcome or not, it is clearly contrary to the code, in spirit if not specifics.

What I find more worrying is the suggestion that this arbitrarily imposed high stress event offers a management advantage. The implications of this really do need looking at. I’m sure most of us will have heard of ‘Stockholm syndrome’, which is most often used in connection with kidnappings or hostage taking – but also in child abuse and battered woman syndrome. In psychological terms it is described as: ‘the phenomenon of psychological identification with the more powerful abuser.’

In fact it is a well established component of various ‘brain-washing’ techniques.

I’m certainly not questioning whether it works or not, we know that it does, but I doubt that anyone would ever suggest that it makes for good welfare! The question each of us has to answer is whether the extremely dubious ethics of such techniques in the training of a young animal can be excused by the potential for commercial benefit. In other words does the end justify the means? And, if the answer is yes, then we had all better do some critical thinking about exactly where such judgements are likely to take us in the future – and what they say about who we are. Personally I have no problem with making an unequivocal statement about such psychological devices – I find them repugnant and unworthy of 21st century civilisation. I would not wish their use on woman, child – or animal – whatever the potential gain in achieving dominance over the native will of another sentient being. 

Does the deprivation of natural social contact and play produce psychologically unhealthy horses?

Dr. Yves Bertrand : Horses, deprived from an early age of all social contact, may effectively in adulthood present behavioural problems, notably aggressiveness. That’s quite right, but to say that it applies to every horse, well I would say - no.

Marie-France Bouissou : If one deprives the horse of contact with others of its kind from an early age, it will not be able to learn the code of intra-species communication.  It would not be able to integrate into a hierarchy and it would not recognise other horses as its own kind.  This is really true of all species.  There is a period of socialisation through which the animal is able to ‘place’ itself.  The function of play, on the other hand, remains very badly understood.

Andy Booth : During three days at the demonstration our horses were deprived of natural social contact because we needed the horses available, have them in the boxes to present them one by one in the show arena. It would be too risky if they were together. Earlier this year we put the students’ horses together and they got hurt, one got kicked and it was a little bit of a disaster. That’s the risk. But we still put the mares in the herd together on the pasture. The stallion is always a tough issue, but I think the best you can do is to separate him with electric fencing so he can see other horses. The problem with ‘nature’ and ‘naturally’ is that we’re no longer there, and it’s really hard to stick with all the rules of nature. We are in our world today and in nature we shouldn’t even ride the horses. Where to draw the line? So, what everyone should do is to give the horse the best deal that he can with the constraints of our century.

Andrew McLean : The natural ethogram of the horses is that they play and they socialise continually. So it is unhealthy not to let this happen. We need to fulfil as much of the horse’s natural ethogram as much as we possibly can. It is healthier if we can allow them to socialise and to scratch each other and do all those sorts of things. The most ideal for them is to be in a family group rather than with unrelated individuals, but certainly the group housing is important for a horse to socialise.

For me these answers again show that, even among the experts, there is a lack of any real consensus. And if that’s true, how is the poor horse owner to make an informed decision? Of more concern is that the experts don’t seem to be as well informed as you might hope. A great deal of work has now been carried out on the subject of play, with new research papers on this specific subject being released on a monthly if not weekly basis over the past couple of years. So to say that we don’t understand the social dynamics of play is just not true, or the social implications for good ongoing welfare. I’m not going to get into the detail of whether horses can be efficiently kept in social groups on a commercial scale here, instead I’ll simply draw your attention to our article on ‘MK Horses’ and let the reality speak for itself. Horses are being kept and used in social groups – effectively, commercially and competitively. In a recent yearly national show jumping event held in New Zealand this past October,  1st through 4th places were taken out by youngsters riding with bitless bridles barefoot horses that are kept in social groups. So to suggest that this will always result in disaster is not true. What may very well be true is that there are at present few ‘experts’ that have the necessary expertise, experience or the will to do so within traditional horsemanship circles. And in that case what we need now is open minds ready to listen to those that are operating working models of equine social management – not denial that such things can be done or that good welfare in a social species is best promoted by social contact.  

Most of the male horses in the world are castrated. Is it necessary?   

Dr. Yves Bertrand :  I think it’s done because it’s easier for people – so that the animal will be easier to manage and I think people do it thinking more of themselves than the animal.  But, I only own mares so I’ve never tackled the subject of castration.

Marie-France Bouissou : When the horse is an entire, it’s necessary to take extraordinary precautions.   He cannot be turned out in the paddock.  One can not put him into livery just anywhere, nor entrust him to just anybody.  These are constraints upon the owner, and also upon the stallion. I have worked a great deal with cattle, and I’ve compared their behaviour.  Males that are castrated late have the characteristic of being much less timid than those castrated early.  The question arises: If horses were castrated later, would the same hold true? In all species of animal, males are less fearful than females, with one or two exceptions. This is due to the androgens produced by the testicles.  If one treats females with these androgens, it’s the same, they become less timorous. It has been demonstrated with cattle, sheep, and mares.  What would be interesting in the case of the horse would be to see, if one waited a long time before castrating, whether they would be less timid. It would of course be necessary to run the study using a very large number of males but, to date, this has never been done.

Andy Booth : I think that most stallions should be castrated. They should be reasonably educated before and prepared for a surgical intervention which should be done in the least stressful manner possible. They should be castrated because I think that it leads to the horse having less trouble in his life. If you get stallions everywhere and horses get in more difficult situations, like, so many stallions haven’t the right to live in the herds, when you’re teaching in a clinic you get one attack another one and this kind of thing. In the modern world of the 21 century with all the clubs where horses are going up and to the boxes together, the stallions should be castrated for their own wellbeing.

Andrew McLean : I think that castrating animals is an abnormal state, however, we can never forget Darwin here and selective successful breeding for centuries. So maybe what we’ve done is selectively breed and other (i.e. not for breeding. Ed) male horses were castrated. Other use was maybe that castrated horses can live longer than a stallion for example. There are fewer difficulties in training than a stallion. The Stallion is much more prone to stress, much more prone to stress colic and even much more prone, I believe, to learned helplessness. Many stallions in dressage have died of stress colic or fever; you can just see that the death rate of stallions is far higher then in the other groups. And often stallions don’t survive in training past 12 or 13 years of age. We have lost many, many stallions in Australia because of stress colic in traditional training. But it’s certain that as a horse trainer I can say that the gelding is generally much more dull and maybe a little bit less sensitive. Stallions are much more aware of the world. However, it’s not a normal condition to geld a horse.

The consensus seems to be that Stallions pose far greater problems than either geldings or mares, as if it is the nature of them that is so difficult. Yet away from the traditions of the ‘developed’ world, groups of stallions can be found in Asia and elsewhere doing such jobs as giving children rides along the beach! Having run a large mixed trekking group of stallions and geldings serving the tourist trade, I have no doubt that not only are they very good workers in such a commercial setting, but that they are far less troublesome or liable to cause injury to riders than either geldings or mares. A real indicator on the subject is that of our panel of interviewees one who has written a couple of books on equine ethology admits to having no experience of stallions! It’s as if Equus Caballus is made up of only mares and castrates! Let me get this straight, I’m not interested in taking cheap shots at any individual – that simply isn’t what NHP is about. But, in any other species, an ethogram or discussion of species behaviour that did not include the natural male would be considered totally bizarre. So why should it be different when dealing with horses? And, if it is so very different, doesn’t that say far more about the western-world mind-set than about the animal? Or are we again looking at a situation where the experts in the industry lack the experience and knowledge, or simply the curiosity to experiment and be open to a different perception? I’m not going to argue that stallion euthanasia due to behavioural problems doesn’t happen – it certainly does. What I am going to argue is that these deaths are the result of poor and ignorant management. I don’t buy the 21st century argument that it is simply impossible in this so enlightened age to do better. Maybe that was true of the 20th century and earlier times in which there were no ethologists, no comparative psychologists and no studies of animal behaviour; but even then other cultures than that of the western world were using stallions in large groups without any problems. And now? Of course it‘s possible – more so than ever before, simply because in this ‘information age’ we have virtually unlimited access to better information, if only we are open to it. There are working models of modern equine management in which stallions play a vital and effective role, and in which relationships between stallions and handlers transcend the inter-species gulf and become precious and enduring friendships. To write stallions off as too difficult or troublesome effectively denies horse owners the life-changing joy of such an experience – to the detriment of both species. To do so on the basis of a reasoned analysis might be acceptable, but to do so on the basis of ignorance or the practice of bad management is not. Nor is this to say we should never castrate. In issue 4 we looked at the question in depth and all the ethical implications. There is no doubt a reasonable argument for castration as a tool of modern equine management; with the 21st century technique of immunocastration offering previously unmatched, and potentially reversible, possibilities, that is not in question. What must be questioned is the perceived necessity to do so when it is clearly driven by a complete and all too common misapprehension of who and what stallions are and of an archaic and unethical approach to their care and keeping. That equine industry experts continue to promulgate such an imbalance is very sad.

Do you think that horseshoeing is unhealthy and counter to the horse’s wellbeing?

Dr. Yves Bertrand : I have no experience in this field but I am sure that if one shoes horses, they are not made unhappy.  At the moment, “barefoot” is in the news but I think that it does not necessarily of consequence in terms of wellbeing.  Wellbeing does not equate to an absence of suffering, and I think horses also have other emotions. The problem is to quantify them, to measure them, if one wishes to be scientific and to avoid all anthropomorphism, and that is not evident.

Marie-France Bouissou : I’m not competent to answer that.   It’s been called a necessary evil, so I’ll say like everyone else that it’s a necessary evil. I’d say that there are some horses that can do without shoes, and others that can not because of the structure of their feet or the work that they do.

Andy Booth: I’ve seen horses and I know horses that have had hoof troubles and were much, much better when they were barefoot. But I know other horses that walked around like on eggs and got really sore feet. To me they would be better with the shoes. I do think that the hoof is a part of the horse that should be allowed to breathe, and maybe to invent the shoes that allow that, maybe in the future to have more flexible shoes. I think that it’s really a tough subject but a lot of research needs to be done. I think positive in barefoot and positive in shoeing, but I need to put shoes on to finish the colt starting job and I don’t have the time to adapt his hoofs to be able to walk on all sorts of grounds. In the 21st  century we move away from nature and we ask the horse to live in situations that aren’t natural anymore. So what we’re trying to do is to have the horse in our present world as comfortable as possible. We have a half zebra here that was not shod for about 4 or 5 months and I saw that her feet don’t need any intervention but a horse would need to be trimmed. So my question is: Have we genetically selected horses now to have a foot that can’t survive like it used to ? Because it could be the case that all the selected horses no longer have a natural foot.

Andrew McLean : I think metal horse shoes were invented in the 7th century AD and that means that there are now 350 generations of horses since and maybe we evolved horses to have feet that rely on shoes to some extent. Many horses often have such bad hooves that taking shoes off, the feet get worse, but the barefoot movement claim that their hoof gets better. I’m really sympathetic with that view but I’m not to sure if many of the old horses’ feet get better and become tougher without shoes. However, I think the real importance of the barefoot movement is that they’re awakening everybody just to say: You’re using shoes far, far too much. Not every horse needs shoes but I think that eventing horses need shoes, horses in very hard work need shoes, horses that have to do endurance courses on rocky ground need shoes, but most other horses probably don’t need shoes. What I would like to see barefoot people do is, rather than to have a theory, they really should have done the research first with an open question and then find out the answer.

600,000 years of horse evolution, plus the ongoing survival fitness of feral horses across the world must surely provide an overwhelmingly powerful proof that horses do not need to be shod. There are a number of people that have done, and continue to do, research on just such horses – so to say that it has not been done is not true. There are few if any truly ‘wild’ horses left (perhaps one Neolithic type pony breed in Tibet) - all the others are feral, meaning that they are the free-ranging or semi-free ranging descendents of domestic horses, whose ancestors were either released into the wild or escaped. So if it were the case that we have selectively bred horses to require shoes why do these feral populations have no hoof problems? Logic would suggest that even if we ignore the difficulties of the perverse logic of selectively breeding for poor hooves the ‘ferals’ prove it is just not so. Equally there are good academic studies by acknowledged scientific professionals that clearly show the way in which the use of metal shoes attached by nails interfere with the natural functioning of the biological elements of the foot and lower leg. So why is it so difficult to achieve a consensus? The argument that you can’t compete barefoot horses in eventing or show jumping has been proven to be false also – and there are already flexible materials and lace up boots that can be used to replace the nailed iron shoe if only we choose to buy and use them. And if all these things are true then isn’t this arguably just another example of tradition getting in the way of reason? You just can’t blame the modern world for making things impossible when it is exactly our modern technology that has produced such amazing developments. What strange lack of critical reasoning is this, where we know full well that we have the ability to manage the complexity of maintaining the health and survival of human beings sent out into space or into the depths of the ocean, yet will not acknowledge the fundamental and undeniable strangeness of nailing a piece of hammered iron onto a living creature or deny our ability to produce something far better? Just take a look at what is being done with prosthetic limbs now, limbs that are taking double amputee climbers to the top of Everest, or allowing amputees to run at very good speeds, and to finish marathons ahead of ‘able-bodied’ runners! If such false limbs were to result in disabled athletes falling at high speed due to the loss of traction would we carry on using them, or would we immediately look at creating a superior design? It’s another no-brainer isn’t it? Yet, and to my shame, here in NZ, aluminium racing plates are in use that have recently caused an horrific accident to a race horse travelling at top speed. Just last night a racing expert interviewed on TV said that in his opinion that awful fall was caused by the lack of grip. Of course it is questionable if the fall of the horse, whatever the consequence to the poor animal’s health and wellbeing might have been, would by itself have created this controversy; it takes a seriously injured jockey to get that degree of attention. But of all the answers we’ve looked at, the one in which it is suggested that suffering does not adversely affect wellbeing has to be the most bizarre of all. Does it sometimes require time and effort to prepare and maintain the unshod horse so that it can work efficiently and without discomfort over a range of surfaces? Of course! There are few things in life that take no effort, and I would suggest that if a person used to wearing shoes wanted to walk barefoot over sharp gravel it would take some time to develop the hardened sole that would allow it – as most of us well know who walk on stony beaches during holiday trips to the sea. But there are two very important differences between us and horses in this respect. First is that we can retain optimal circulation in our lower legs whether we walk about or not, with or without shoes. The horse is not designed in the same way, and requires the full and uninterrupted action of the components of its feet, specifically the frog and distal cushion, to ensure such circulation. Second is that we would not for a minute consider walking about in shoes that prevented our feet from flexing naturally, but if we did we acknowledge that it would cause deformities and be both far more tiring and less enjoyable were we to do so. That high fashion models are prepared to do so, or that the desire of some women to enhance their sexual allure by wearing stiletto heels (designed by men!) overcomes their desire to be comfortable alters nothing. In both those cases the choice is their own. To alter the movement of an animal, contrary to the correct functioning of a design that has been perfected over hundreds of thousands of years, by the forced attachment of a hard shoe is an entirely different matter. If the wellbeing of the horse is paramount, then no excuse, commercial or competitive, is sufficient – otherwise the code is meaningless.

Equipment such as spurs, bits and whips, plus any and all items of harness that operate on the basis of physical force, pain and discomfort have an impact contrary to wellbeing of the horse.

Dr. Yves Bertrand : It’s clear that if you use constraints that cause pain, and these constraints are important, the horse will be stressed and you will get behavioural problems with the presence of pain and fear.  But the question is not whether one should use a bit or spurs, the question that comes to mind is, if you use a bit or spurs for restraint, you will get the opposite of what they are supposed to do.  If you have a supple, gentle hand, they have no constraining consequences, but if you use the bit with a hard hand, you will become constraining, and put the horse into a stress situation, and you will get the opposite of what you wished.

Marie-France Bouissou : No – using a bit with a light hand does not produce discomfort. Yes – if one believes that to steer the horse is a constraint and causes pain and discomfort.  Pain is something eminently subjective.  It is recognised that animals may have emotions and the possibility that they feel pain.  There are signs, reactions, attitudes and indices that indicate pain.  With horses, no studies have been done and I do not want to advance too far into territory that I do not know.

Andy Booth: I know riders that have such good hands and such good legs that it just wouldn’t matter. One of the things in the Vaquero tradition, which is the tradition that I respect, is to have longer and longer shanks on the bit. But the idea of this piece of equipment is that the rider does less and less. Now, if I want a nice half-pass, how am I going to order the horse to make that happen? Spurs on a bottom of good feet is simply the way to use negative reinforcement that says: get off my leg; if you don’t, there is a spur. I think that, being really objective, when we are talking about bits and spurs, is not to have to use them but then how do you want to do dressage for example. I would love it if everything could be done with positive reinforcement, I would love to think that just with a carrot and sugar we can have everything that we want, but I need to see it first to believe it.

Andrew McLean : The problem with pain is that it can cause learned helplessness. The problem with learned helplessness is that you don’t necessarily see it on the outside. But on the inside the horse can have a lot of pain and may show physiological/immunological changes and become very sick. That’s a constant pain and that’s a really bad thing and I think what we should be aiming for in  horse training is to use less and less equipment to control the horse and more and more conditioning and proper training. So it’s real training, not force. Modern dressage is actually not much training, it’s mostly forcing the horse to stay in his speed, his outline, with pressure on the reins rather than training him to do it on his own.

Take a look at horses out in a paddock, do you ever see them repeatedly showing head-shaking behaviour? Now put a bit in the mouth – without reins attached. In many cases head-shaking is a repeated behaviour. So the argument that light rein contact necessarily means no discomfort is far from being an absolute. What’s more, if the horse has to hope that the rider will have such excellent control over their hands that light contact will always be maintained then what of those used for teaching, or by riders without the necessary skill and level of practice required? Surely all or many will be subjected to painful episodes? Once again some answers are worrying, and seem to be more about supporting tradition than critical analysis. Although pain is undoubtedly subjective there is no real question of whether it is good or not – or that it would be counter to wellbeing in a general sense. So any device that causes pain must be questionable in the context of the code. Having spent some years in Andalucia during which I got a good look at the realities of the Vaquero tradition I’m quite surprised to hear it paid respect. I assume this ignores the bloody scarring of the face by use of the ‘serreta’ – literally a saw-toothed metal attachment to the noseband that cuts directly into the sensitive tissue of the nose. And I’m sorry, but what I saw of the long branched bits in use, whether in Vaquero or Western tradition, was that such leverage can be generated, and such pain inflicted by use of this mechanical advantage, that horses become so afraid they immediately give in. Of course you first have to cause the pain to create the fear, so any suggestion that they are humane is somewhat disingenuous. Having watched ‘Vaquero’ horses standing head tied to hitching rails after a morning’s work, still carrying the heavy iron-framed saddles, and with no shelter in the fierce mid-day sun, while their Vaquero riders take their siestas, full bellied in the comfort and shade of a cool hacienda building, I feel a little differently about the tradition. Romanticise these traditions how you may, the truth remains that the average cowboy is untutored in the finer points of negative and positive reinforcement, and as likely to consider the ethics of how he does things as he is to fly. Welfare codes just don’t even enter into it. The horse is nothing but a work tool, and unless things have changed greatly over the last decade I doubt the quality of life, or life expectancy, of these horses has improved. Woolly thinking and romantic misrepresentation merely makes improvement less likely, and has nothing to do with ethical horsemanship. Spurs are there to cause discomfort or pain, with the intent that the horse should do what it can to avoid the unpleasantness of having them used. Suggesting that they ‘say’ get off my leg is again disingenuous. What they ‘say’ if anything is ‘obey or get hurt’.

That experts would state it is not possible to get a horse to carry out complex dressage movements without these things merely demonstrates that they lack the broader experience and ability to get horses to do the same thing in a bitless bridle and with the rider wearing smooth heeled boots. But it was these same kinds of expert that said the collection required to get a horse through a show jumping course could not be achieved without a bit. Now we have the increasingly common proof that all these things can be achieved by communication only. Remember those competition successes I mentioned earlier? Serendipity was in operation while writing this piece; just as I got to this point the phone rang and I had some great news. One of our local high schools, in Kerikeri, took a team of four to the NZ National Schools Show Jumping competition in Cambridge. Three of the four were riding barefoot horses, kept and managed in a large social group, in bitless bridles, with just one in traditional shoes and bit. The team, schooled by local event rider Kate Hewlett, took 1st prize, allowing me to rest my case in a most positive and delightful way! And, to those that suggest it can’t be done I have just one thing to say - come and watch us do it!

What kind of training methods feature psychological coercion and produce symptoms such as learned helplessness and post traumatic stress syndrome?

Dr. Yves Bertrand : I don’t view kindly expressions such as post traumatic and the like.  I would say simply that no matter what method of training is used, if it becomes constraining, it has the opposite effect to that which you wanted.  It may produce behavioural consequences in the horse, same as in any other animal.

Marie-France Bouissou : I do not know what that is and what would produce post traumatic symptoms.  I’ve heard it spoken of in humans but not in horses.  I think it’s to do with important emotional shocks which provoke things like phobias or the like. I’d prefer to abstain from answering this question because I do not really know what it means and, to me, the term seems much too strong.

Andy Booth : Learned helplessness is having the conflicting aids like reins and legs, especially by teaching the horse and eventually bombarding him with information that is too close together. We shouldn’t teach the horse four things at the same time. Then what happens is that the horse runs into two solutions; he can’t handle this, so he rebels or fights, which is fine, normal and natural. The other thing he does is to become empty, he shuts down. There’s nothing in there when you look at his eyes. And that’s about the saddest thing you can do to the animal. That’s really cruel. I don’t think that bad education is just something you see only in the competition arena, and I see club horses with learned helplessness all the time. Bad education is if the horses don’t understand all the stimuli that we’re giving to them. They are the ones that will colic, head stress, kicking the box, have stable vices. Post traumatic stress is usually following the order of the horse getting beaten or punished and the animal just can’t understand punishment. So if you punish the horse after having done something, and there’s a lot of trouble related with what he did, all you do is enforce and reinforce the idea that you’re not good. But then you ask the horse to stay living with you, like: you live in my world but I’m gonna beat you up from time to time. Like, if I would come home and beat my wife from time to time, she’ll leave. But the animal hasn’t the choice, it can’t leave just like that.

Andrew McLean : People should be prosecuted who produce such terrible conditions as learned helplessness but the horse riding world don’t even recognise what it is. Most of the riding and training stables around the world and in all horse sports produce some learned helplessness and they excuse themselves by saying: it’s just a horse, it’s the horse’s fault or it’s the fault of the person who had the horse before me. Constantly spurred or constantly held in the strong pressure by the hands, constantly too deep and held there with very strong pressures, and the very worst thing is when the horses get a bunch of all at once - it is a big sentence for them. And people say they love the horse but at the same time they do the worst things. The horse in a concentration camp, it’s the most terrible thing for a horse.  In modern horse sports they don’t do real training, it’s more like wrestling for me. Because the horse is held in the speed, held in the frame and in the outline, and held in straightness.  And when the rider stops spurring him he may stop moving forward. It’s just really an awful situation. If we are still able to ride horses in maybe 30 or 50 years these sort of things will be completely outlawed, so when we look back and see what we live in now, we’ll see truly horrific times: It’s slavery.

I’ll happily leave Andrew McLean to have the last word on this – slavery indeed!

Comments in black type (c) AD Beck 2006