Is it right to ride horses?

The ethical equestrian’s dilemma

Equestrians may have figured out how to train horses for an astonishing array of disciplines, but how do we fare with elephants? Namely, the huge one standing in the room that surrounds the entire equine industry: is it “right” to ride horses?

Most people prefer not to think about this topic at all, and certainly not to discuss it, because figuring out one’s own ethics and stance when it comes to horse training is difficult enough without questioning the practice itself. For most riders, it’s far simpler to defer to a chosen expert and drink up their assurance that our practice and methods are acceptable or even beneficial to the horse, and put the uncomfortable whispers in the back of our minds to bed. After all, something that so many people are doing can’t be wrong, can it? Yet every once in a while, perhaps after we’ve ended the ride on a sour note, or our horse refuses to come in from the pasture, that elephant tromps into our mind with disquieting bluntness, asking us to take a closer look at man’s relationship with the horse.

At first we may brush this aside, justifying our stance because we humans have to work and perform uncomfortable tasks, too, so why shouldn’t our horses? We also might point out the domesticated nature of horses and declare that they wouldn’t survive without us, so we’re really doing them a favor with so little asked in return. Of course, we forget who domesticated horses in the first place, or that horses have no concept of an exchange system of work and money like we do. In fact, as an industry, we’ve gotten quite good at coming up with excuses. The livelihood of many people depends on those excuses, and we are nothing if not creative about defending our income. But the honest equestrian soon realizes that all of our arguments dissolve under one simple fact: we are breeding, using, selling, making, and breaking living beings for our own entertainment and profit. No matter how much we try to avoid, bury, or distract from that statement, we can’t escape it. Ethical people should be given pause here, because when we do such things to humans beings, we call it a violation of their intrinsic rights. When we do it to horses, we call it sport.

The possibility that we are perpetuating such an injustice hurts, because we LOVE our horses. We LOVE riding. If riding a horse is bad, it means that something that moves us so deeply and brings so much pleasure is wrong. And that’s a heartbreaking concept, because few other things in life give us that kind of joy. Most of us wouldn’t want to live in this world without that feeling – without horses – so suddenly a simple question of ethics becomes a gut-wrenching dilemma. It’s no wonder we avoid that elephant like the plague!

Yet, there is great worthiness in contemplating our relationship with horses. Though it takes courage to look in the mirror at what we don’t wish to see, our loyalty to horses demands that we do them this courtesy. Only once we’ve found a conclusion will our moral compass be satisfied such that we can ask horses to partner with us in good conscience – or make the choice not to.

Here’s my take. Yours may differ. As a horse shaman and animal communicator in addition to being a dressage and event rider, I have a unique insight into the equine mind. I made use of that ability during my own quest to answer this question and connected with several horses to seek their perspectives on the subject. This discourse was not to absolve myself of making my own decision, but rather to honor that horses are sentient beings with desires and preferences of their own, and it felt wrong to exclude their input based on assumptions made through my human moral code. In short, I felt I couldn’t make a judgement about horses and riding without talking it over with them, first. What I discovered vastly changed my perspective about riding and equestrian sport.

It’s important to note at this point that I don’t just “communicate” with animals the way you and I might talk. The connection goes far beyond words. I receive sensations, emotions, knowings, and perspectives in addition to an intuitive version of dialogue. This depth allows me to feel what the horse feels, see the world through their lens, and helps me understand their lives – the good, the bad, and the truly ugly – in rich detail. I would never claim to ever fully understand horses or speak in their name, but I can translate my experience to add some missing information to this larger question about the morality of riding because I have felt what injustice does to the heart of a horse.

I don’t say that to be overly dramatic, but rather to provide levity for my conclusion on this sensitive and important matter:

Riding, itself, is not inherently wrong, just as the act of sex between two people is not inherently wrong. In all cases, the manner in which the act is conducted, and the relationship between the individuals involved, determines whether the experience is abusive or blessed.

That comparison may turn a few heads, so bear with me. Riding is extremely personal to horses, probably more-so than we can easily understand due to the differences in our species of being predator and prey. I once asked a mare what it was like for someone to take up contact with her mouth through the reins, and the sensation was as intimate and nerve-wracking as we might feel undressing for a lover for the first time. You see, horses are completely exposed and vulnerable to us when we ride. They are asked or forced to totally surrender their bodies for what ever use the rider decides upon without a say in the matter. Most of us wouldn’t even trust our spouses to that degree! Consequently, the only way for us humans to understand the feeling of being ridden – and thus develop an adequate ethical gauge of our practices with horses – is to find a comparison where we are equally as vulnerable with our bodies. The closest we can come to that feeling is sex. Hence, the metaphor.

Now, back to the tricky part of sorting out ethics. Our society has decided that forcing sex upon another person is unethical and abusive. Similarly, most riders have seen a horse physically or mentally overpowered through forceful tactics and rightfully call such methods abusive. On the other side of the spectrum would be a happy couple who falls in love, makes a long term commitment, and engages in consensual sex that both individuals enjoy. These people are blessed in their union and even the eyes of most religions. Some equestrians are lucky enough to witness a horse and rider partnership where the horse actively chooses to participate and is as engaged and joyous as the rider, and this, too, is blessed. In fact, healthy horses see such experiences as divine, the culmination of their journey with the human race. The connection created in such a relationship allows for total unity or “oneness” with another soul, and horses view this as the greatest joy on Earth, spiritually-speaking. To partner with horses in this way is a great gift for both of our species, and it would be a sad loss should we humans refuse this connection because of a misguided conviction of moral superiority.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all horses see all riding as divine; far from it. The bulk of the equestrian world lies somewhere between those two extremes of abuse and blessing, and this is where we as individuals have to assert our own inner wisdom to determine what is right. However, the key to ethical partnership with the horse stems from the same hiccup we struggle with in our own species: consent. Without it, riding and sex will always be abuse.

We must ask the same tough questions that we do in our own world in the horse world related to consent, because it’s a mired topic in both. Is riding consensual if the horse has been pursued relentlessly until it tires and gives in? Or held hostage in an enclosed area where she can’t escape the pursuer? Or if restraints are used to prevent the horse from fighting back? Moreover, is the consent still relevant if the horse has been so broken in spirit that she has lost the ability to refuse? If you’re still doing the sex comparison in your head, you may have some nauseating mental images right now. Odd, isn’t it, to realize that what we consider normal and acceptable as methods for training horses is reprehensible when applied to the vulnerability of our own species? Your reflections about this sex versus riding metaphor might make you look differently at your favorite professional, or the local colt starter, and it should – because now you have a tool to evaluate who you want to emulate. Some people will lift in your estimation, and others may seem revolting.

Personally, it was about at this point, after I’d mentally reviewed the riding and training I’d witnessed and performed, that I felt a sort of self-horror and shame for the industry and my participation in it. After all, it’s not easy to change your fundamental approach after a few decades of perfecting it. I contemplated whether I should ride at all, but that concept of true partnership was so compelling that I continued the thought process through to find some answers to the new questions that arose. What are ethical ways to work with the horse? How can we enter a consenting relationship with them? Will horses even want to do the things we like, or does this mean our favorite sports are off the table?

Once again, I consulted horses for their input. Most people assume that horses would prefer to graze or eat instead of working with us, so there is a feeling of helplessness that ensues after we recognize that to be ethical, they must be consenting partners. Surprisingly, this is not so. Most horses who are healthy in mind and body enjoy the company of humans and like physical activity. They are often willing to engage in riding or related activities, provided that the experience is not painful, frightening, confusing, or unfair. That means everyone can be ethical riders by adhering to methods of working with the horse that honors these pillars of consent. (Incidentally, that also means honoring when a horse is sore, hormonal, or having an off day which means s/he doesn’t want to work – just like you don’t want to have sex if your back hurts even if you normally enjoy it.)

These pillars are pretty straightforward, and plenty of riding and training techniques respect them. Some do not, and part of our job as riders is to know the difference. However, in order to comply with these pillars, we must also have the ability to recognize when the horse is saying that he or she is hurting, afraid, confused, or betrayed. This is not the same skill set as riding or training for equestrian sport, though the two are connected. Even most equine professionals have a hard time recognizing these objections, so it’s paramount to study equine behavior and learn your horse in particular to understand the signals you are receiving in order to retain consent. Hint: the “bad behavior” you’ve been told to get after is a sign that your horse is withdrawing his or her consent. It’s up to you to figure out why, and correct the problem, rather than put a gag in her mouth to stop her from saying no.

That’s just the beginning, of course. Fulfilling these pillars of consent is the kind of basic respect for free will that a guy trying to pick up chicks at a bar might have. He might not remember her name in the morning, but at least he asked her first. Consequently, merely fulfilling these requirements is not something to aspire to so much as an ethical line drawn in the sand to provide some tenants of basic rights.

To truly engage the horse such that he or she desires riding as much as you do, and actively participates in and enjoys the sport that you like, you have to take this a step further. You have to create a relationship that is based on more than just sex – sorry, riding. This means getting to know your horse, seeing her as an individual, and honoring and respecting who she is. It means treating her as if her life and her personality matter more than just her value under saddle, because she does. Honor the intrinsic value that she brings to the world as a living being – not a human being, but an individual with a life of her own. Those who consider the horse a means to their end or a tool in the shed have already lost this battle, no matter how compassionate their training may seem. They will never be more than the bar fly above because they will never see the horse as anything but an object, even if they consider it a particularly precious one. Due to the differences in our lifespans, we may have experiences with many horses, but our horses only ever have their one experience of us. That is a gift not to be squandered.

Honoring your horse as an individual with preferences and a mind of his own also means taking those preferences into account, but the good news for us sport horse enthusiasts is that horses generally enjoy what we enjoy. Many owners swear up and down that their horse hates dressage but loves jumping (or the reverse), but usually the horse could take-or-leave either and simply enjoys when you are happy together, provided those pillars of consent are met. That means that many equestrian sports are fully available to ethical riders, so long as the sport itself falls within those pillars. That said, some horses find jumping stressful or painful, for example, so it would be unethical to force the horse to continue doing so just because you like it or he has a strong physical ability. If your horse was introduced to the sport through forceful or stressful methods, it’s possible that retraining in an ethical way might solve the problem, but this concept should never be used as an excuse to repeatedly subject the horse to fearful stimuli and abuse him in the attempt. No means no. Respecting the horse’s aptitude and preferences is vital to retaining consent.

With all of the talk of oneness and harmony and seeing horses as individuals, let’s be clear: this isn’t some lovey dovey, let-your-horse-walk-all-over-you-and-never-ride-or-talk-meanly-to-poopsie garbage. Think of yourself more like dance partners. Yes, one of you is leading, but the other follows out of respect and trust, and not because you’re controlling her every move. Wild horses have a hierarchy that is not based on the traditional pecking order model most equestrians believe, but rather on respect and wisdom. Horses follow one another based on wisdom and knowledge for things like the location of clean drinking water or the ability to find edible grass under the snow. Only when resources are limited and horses must compete for them does physical aggression come in to play, so don’t use that method to try to gain your horse’s respect unless you want to lose his consent.

Mentally, horses are similar to children, but they grow in maturity if not brain power, so we humans have a great deal of wisdom to share with our equine friends. It’s up to ethical riders to earn their horse’s trust and be the source of leadership the horse follows when stressors or questions arise by demonstrating a pattern of responsible and wise behavior for their equine counterpart. That way, when you do ask a horse to tackle a frightening cross country jump or a difficult dressage move, the horse responds out of trust and belief that your guidance is sound. He has no resistance because he was never given a reason to resist or distrust your leadership; he’s completely on board and engaged. That’s the up side for the sport world for working with horses in this way: they start using all of their resources to join you in performance instead of evading you. It’s a win-win when both parties are satisfied with the relationship.

It would be inappropriate to leave this discussion without a word about equipment and gadgets. Horses benefit from tools that help us explain to them what we want, so there’s nothing wrong with using a bit or certain gadgets if they help bridge those inter-species communications lines. However, most people use gadgets as a substitute for consent. It’s easier to slap a martingale on and prevent the head tossing than to read and understand the head tossing as a sign of non-consent and deal with the consequences of what that means. So, a rule of thumb is that if the bit or gadgets fit within the pillars of consent with the way you’re using them, they are probably fine, but you should still question whether the horse enjoys the practice. The latter concept is instrumental to maintaining your leadership wisdom in the relationship.

The next question with gadgets once again challenges your own knowledge, and whether you know what they do and how they act on the horse to be able to properly evaluate whether they fit into the pillars. Many people think that something like the Pessoa system “helps” horses learn to use their bodies, but this rig wouldn’t fit within the pillars because it’s frustrating and painful for the horse to have his mouth yanked by his hocks every stride. No consent there. So once more we are asked to further our education if we are to remain morally sound, because neither we nor the horse gets a free pass even if someone esteemed tells us it’s okay to use those side reins. Trust can be broken in a heartbeat even if it takes a lifetime to make.

Bits are much in the same vein. I’m not a snaffle-or-die believer, because it’s just as ignorant to think one mouthpiece will work for every horse as it is to think that a harsh bit is acceptable. Short of FEI level cross country horses, bitting up for control generally eliminates consent and would cross that line in the sand. That said, even if you are an FEI level eventer, ethical horsemanship requires considering whether you have either found a hole in the horse’s training such that severe pain is necessary to secure your communication, or even honoring that the horse isn’t a good match for the sport if his adrenaline overrides his good sense to the extent that you must injure his mouth to control him. Just as you wouldn’t let a horse gallop down a concrete road and injure himself when excited (that’s the “leadership” role we play), you oughtn’t let him come to harm for the sake of sport.

Saddles should clearly fit well, too. Without a proper fit, there’s no training you can do under saddle that allows for consent because the horse will be in constant pain. Gone are the days when using the same saddle on every horse in the barn is considered best-practice. Again, you must develop in your knowledge to be able to recognize the signs of an ill-fitting saddle, which can be everything from not wanting to be caught in the pasture to avoiding the mounting block to being “sensitive” while grooming to bucking under saddle to girthiness and beyond. All of these are firm and forceful “no!” answers that must be respected for an ethical collaboration.

Finally, a note about horsekeeping. Keeping a horse in a stall 24/7 is not appropriate or ethical treatment, and it never will be. I have yet to meet a horse who remains fully sane after the experience, and I’m not just talking about neurotic behavior. Living in a box for an extended period of time simply breaks something in the horse’s brain. It’s not an acceptable practice for ethical equestrians to inflict upon their friends short of emergency or medical situations, or brief periods for showing to which the horse is well-acclimated beforehand. The more turn out time, the better.

There’s sure a lot involved with doing right by our horses, and frankly there should be. We are discussing the entire lives of another sentient being, so it should take significant thought and care to handle this responsibility with grace. There’s a lot to learn, and more to know, and no doubt we all make mistakes that cause our horses to suffer. When we see everything analyzed at once like this, the idea of adhering to ethics can feel overwhelming, or even impossible because of the distance between where we are and where we want to be. Going back to our favorite expert’s advice may seem like like the far easier route, because it doesn’t require making the tough decisions, and it doesn’t hold us accountable. But answering these questions, growing in knowledge and compassion and learning of the horse, and taking accountability for our actions and relationship IS the journey of horsemanship. Our courage to continue choosing what is right instead of what is easy makes us ethical equestrians.

Eventually we find that the right path becomes the easy path, because we complete our shift in focus from results to relationships. In the beautiful irony of life, once we’ve arrived in this place, most of us find what we were looking for in the competitive world to begin with: fulfillment with our horses. There’s no need to stop competing, of course; there’s simply the hunger to do so in alignment with our best friends. The internal conflict is settled, and we can allow ourselves to embrace this joy as our horses see it – divine.

10 Replies to “Is it right to ride horses?”

  1. Excellent read!

  2. How thought provoking. Seeing the world through the horse’s eyes, gives me great pause.

  3. Re-reading this after a year, and I have some further reflections. Of course, one blog entry can’t cover such a complex topic in full detail. However, I do want to mention that “perfect” is not a realistic concept when working with animals. It’s easy to read something like this article and fret over every single transgression, and that’s not the point. The meat, the great worthiness in this consideration, is the journey. Not all of the results will be perfect. There are times when it’s better for the horse to have some mild discomfort rather than go out of work completely, for example, even though that’s not ideal for his wellbeing. Other times, like for true injury, time off is a better choice, and that’s why knowledge is so key to this process. We may not alway get the answer right, and that’s okay. That’s how we learn and grow as horsemen.

    And sometimes things just go sideways, because horses aren’t human and they will never think the same way we do. A horse having a crisis may need a gadget or a drug or a strong use of force for his own safety and the safety of the people around him when things go south. Hopefully these are the last resort and not the first step, but it’s naive to believe that every single situation will always be some idyllic heart-to-heart moment. This is especially true with horses who are new to us or who have a challenging history to overcome. Human safety really must come first, followed by safety of the horse, and we can’t rely on the horse to have conscious awareness of those pieces in all situations. Consequently, we must take great care not to anthropomorphize the animal in our attempt to stay ethical, because it is just as unfair to ask the horse to be human in thought and mind as it is to force him or her into physical discomfort. Respecting the nature of the horse means understanding and honoring that nature, not projecting our own.

  4. I’m glad I found this. I’ve asked the same questions about the human/horse relationship, and see eye to eye with you on most things. I now work as a dressage trainer and help many horses that way.
    Its good to connect with people who’ve been through it (the dark side of equestrian sport – showjumping in my case) and out the other side.
    I’m on Vancouver Island– maybe we’ll meet someday.
    Tegan Mills

    1. Hi Tegan,
      Thank you for sharing. It’s a pleasure to connect with others who, like you say, have gone through this journey. It’s easy to condemn equestrian sport entirely when we’re exposed to the unsavory elements, but that also denies the incredible partnerships we can have with our equine friends, which is a loss for both species. I applaud you for finding your path to working with horses in this way, and helping bring much needed education and inspiration to others.

      I get up to Vancouver Island every so often, and it would be a pleasure to connect some time.

  5. Claudia Ciugudean says: Reply

    I don’t find the rights words now, because I am so happy to see the human evolution…yes I consider that EVOLUTION .
    Finally the first step, the most beautiful description of the horse -human interaction.

    1. Thank you, Claudia. I agree wholeheartedly – it is evolution, and it is one we are all capable of making within. Partnering with horses this way truly is an act of communion.

  6. Hanne Joergensen says: Reply

    I LOVE the consent view. So important factor when dealing with all living creations

  7. Although I have been a happy hacker for years, and have always tried to treat my horse as you describe above, I have never considered myself knowledgeable. About 5 1/2 years ago I was given an 18 month Shetland pony colt. Well, he was forced upon me. I didn’t want the responsibility of owning a pony that was too small for me to ride. On threat of him being sent for slaughter, I took him, handled him, introduced him to my riding horse, my friend’s horse and rescued mini-Shetland, and gave him 18 months running with horses. In 2013 I was diagnosed with lung disease, my riding horse broke a sidebone, and my friend and couldn’t rent grazing land. She sold her 2 horses. Another friend very kindly offered me grazing for the big horse, and I took the Shetland home to a half-acre garden. Got a goat for companion, as I don’t have enough ground for a second equine.

    In depression and desperation for both of us, I decided that the pony needed work, and began the process of training us both to drive. I have no experience of driving, training, even horse husbandry. I hate the expression “breaking” a horse, to me, it has evil connotations.

    I had 2 driving lessons with a registered instructor who seemed to have more faith in me than I had, and more or less told me to get on with it.

    We have walked the roads in hand, long reining, getting used to traffic and the sabre-toothed tigers pretending to be plastic bags, facing down bicycles, tractors, and too-fast cars.. We have learned to trust each. We are still learning! It took 2 years before I wanted to put a harness on Rebel. It took a further year to find a cart to fit him – all 10hh of him! We walked the roads for more months before I set foot in the cart, and I would probably still be walking if I hadn’t got too breathless one day and thought “I’m going to die if I don’t!”

    Since then, we haven’t looked back. We are still gaining confidence- together – in traffic. If Rebel seems out of sorts or tired, we don’t go out, although he loves his work, and enjoys trotting around the roads. I started working him with a loose ring straight bar nylon bit, and tried him with the traditional Liverpool on a smooth cheek setting, loose curb chain, and a snaffle. And actually, he preferred the black nylon bar. He has a very soft mouth. Most of the time I drive with very loose – if any! – contact. He responds to voice, listens to me talking to him all the time ….

    I suppose the long story short here is, having NO background or experience in training horses, being a novice rider, non-driver, etc, etc, I have found your article to be a huge relief to me. The purists would have a fit about me working with my pony to find what works for him. I’m happy to have achieved a healthy, fit, happy pony, who trusts me, who will do what I ask when I show him what I want, who responds to me when I patiently and quietly ask and show and demonstrate – and yes! – bribe with treats!!! Yes, he tries it on! Yes, I carry a whip – which I use the way I used my legs for direction when riding …. It can be done, this training business, with courtesy and patience rather than pain and fear. Thank you for the affirmation

    1. Jan, thank you for sharing your story! That is a beautiful example of working in partnership. Sometimes having a “novice” mindset is a blessing, because our instincts haven’t been overridden by outer authority and training. Many people, upon taking instruction and listening to trainers, are conditioned out of their compassion and connection to horses because they are taught that it’s correct and acceptable to use force and dominance. Even the trainers have had this worked out of them through their own education process, generation after generation, because there isn’t really an audit system of any sort for riding; show results don’t necessarily reflect horsemanship. And so the cycle continues, on and on. As you’ve demonstrated with your lovely Shetland, partnership is possible – and much more fun!

      I thoroughly support bribing with treats, by the way, because it helps keep the activity enjoyable and rewarding for the horse. As with any relationship, boundaries and respect are an important part of working with horses, so that doesn’t mean mauling people for food or creating a treat monster is the solution. However, food is a tangible and instant reward for horses, and using this in training helps make the process worth their while.

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