What is Equitation Science and Why Should We Care?

Equitation Science is the study of horse behaviour and welfare in an objective, science-based manner. Research spans topics from riding and competing to “the other 23 hours”.

I attended my first International Society of Equitation Sciences conference this past month and I loved it! It was such an amazing group of people, all working toward the common goal of giving our horses the best lives possible and proving what is truly ‘best’ through scientific research. The people in attendance were primarily academics and researchers, as well as trainers, riders, and a couple of veterinarians like me. They are from all over the world, with the majority of the research coming out of Europe and Australia. The society was formed in 2005 when a group of like-minded researchers gathered in Australia to begin to address the lack of research into the science of horseback riding. This has since expanded to include the entirety of horses lives as they interact with humans.

Some will argue that interacting with horses, whether it is on their back or from the ground, is more of an art form than a science. While I agree that there is art in the ability to communicate and work with a horse in a harmonious manner, I have to say that there is also a place for science to help improve our management and training methods.

As a veterinarian, I wanted to attend this conference from the viewpoint that we as vets are asked our opinion on husbandry or even training decisions fairly frequently. We also handle horses every day and if anyone can benefit from further knowledge of their behaviour, it is equine veterinarians. There is also a large body of research into horse welfare, and what qualifies as cruel treatment. The Ontario government has changed the way that it handles cruelty investigations and we are currently in a transition period, we are supposed to have a more concrete system in place this fall… what will be the role of veterinarians? We don’t know yet.

Let me take you through some of the highlights (for me) of the conference!

The pre-conference workshop with the amazing Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue team was an important view into how we handle horses in emergency situations, how we interact with a team of first responders, and how we keep everyone safe. These are skills that you hope you never have to use, such as a horse down in a trailer that has crashed or helping horses out of a barn fire. In this early part of my career, I have already been involved in both of those situations. That is worthy of an entire blog on its own.

A large focus of the conference was teaching these scientists different techniques to help communicate their findings to horse people. If we can’t effectively pass the science from the laboratory to the stable then it isn’t benefiting the horses.    

The Change Cycle – human learning science. Before we can change, we need to become aware that there is a problem.

Looking at the correlation between rider weight and horse behaviour. Research has shown that increases in weight can lead to increased stress measurements in horses (heart rate, lactate, and respiratory rate), as well as a decrease in stride length. This study looked at sudden increases in weight using weight vests, increasing rider weight within a rider: horse ratio of 15-23%. Within this range of weight ratios, there was no significant response to increased rider weight.

Horse and rider safety in-game encounters. Did you know that you can go on an African safari on horseback?!?! I didn’t! These researchers looked at the stress levels of the horses used, specifically as they approached wild game. They found that the horses were generally alert but did not show extreme flight responses. They found significant differences in stress behaviours between the breeds used, thoroughbreds showing more stress than the local ‘Bush Pony’ breed. They also found that horses showed the most stress when approaching giraffes as opposed to other game species- who knew?

There was a large focus on equipment use in riding. We listened to presentations about the micklem bridle vs conventional bridles, effects on sub-noseband tissues with different noseband tensions, noseband design and rein tension, spur use in the UK, whip use in competition. This is the research that is changing FEI rules and will affect all of our other competition rules!

One presentation discussed the common pitfalls associated with measuring the equine stress response. What does an increased heart rate mean and how can we appropriately measure it? Do our measuring techniques themselves cause stress, like blood or saliva sampling? Are our tools giving us accurate results, particularly heart rate variability measures in horses with physiological arrhythmias? These are really important questions that will help us accurately interpret research findings.

This one was fun – looking at the impact of a companion horse during stressful situations. Researchers looked at horses’ approach to novel objects and their reaction to an unusual event (suddenly opening an umbrella) both alone and with a companion. In the test with novel objects, the companion helped to decrease reactivity. In the test with sudden stimuli, the companion improved recovery time. In a nutshell – horses do better in scary situations if they have a buddy. This makes my heart happy.

Finally, one area that I found to be extremely significant was the discussion about the National Farm Animal Care Council of Canada. I am proud of the work and science that our country has put into creating Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals. Do you know about these Codes of Practice? Have you read them? The codes provide minimum standards and recommendations for the welfare of animals.  These codes are due for update and revision in 3 years and the science being produced right now will impact the new codes. If you haven’t, you should have a look at the code: https://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/equine

There is so much more that I could talk about; the importance of learning theory in training across all species, the different devices being used to monitor heart rate at rest and during exercise, the perspective of Gypsy people on their horses’ welfare, different slow feeder designs, and more!

Please have a look at the website for the International Society for Equitation Sciences: https://equitationscience.com/

And if you don’t already, follow these science-based publications on social media:

Equitation Science International, Horses and People Magazine, Justine Harrison – Equine Behaviorist

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