Study: Trainers Consistently Evaluate Ridden Horse Behavior

Editor's note: This article is part of's ongoing coverage of topics presented at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

As equitation science progresses towards a better understanding of horse behavior and welfare, the age-old problem of scientists lacking practical experience is rearing its head and flaring its nostrils.

According to Dutch equitation scientists, researchers aren't always able to evaluate ridden horse behavior as consistently as professional trainers. This behavior includes actions such as how a horse carries his head, neck, ears, and tail, and what he does with his mouth and legs, for example. Kathalijne Visser, PhD, senior researcher in the Animal Behavior and Welfare Group of Wageningen UR Livestock Research, in Lelystad, The Netherlands, presented on the topic at the 2012 International Society of Equitation Science (ISES) conference, held July 18-20 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Professional trainers tend to agree in their evaluation of ridden horse behavior, said Visser. But this agreement seems to be lacking among equitation scientists. That's probably because scientists have had very different, and much more detailed, training in how to assess and evaluate ridden horse behavior than what trainers have had, she said.

"Scientists ... potentially lack some of the applied experience that professional horse trainers have with ridden horses in evaluating the 'whole picture,' because most scientists are trained to evaluate and assess behavior of horses, mostly in a natural, unridden state," Visser said. "At the same time, trainers have not been educated in observing horses in a standardized manner as scientist are trained to do."

In her two-part study, equitation scientists and experienced horse trainers each developed scoring methods for evaluating ridden horses' behavior signals. Other equitation scientists and horse trainers were then asked to individually score the behavior of horses seen in video clips, based on the methods developed in the first part of the study. The study was initiated during the 2009 ISES conference in Sydney, Australia, with the participants present at the conference.

"Horses communicate a lot, with their faces and their ears, for example," Visser said during her presentation. "We can learn a lot about the horse, but how do we interpret their signals? That's what we need to fine-tune with collaboration between scientists and trainers."

The evaluations, in the form of a quiz--which can be viewed online--included 60 video clips focusing on 12 different equine body parts. While different trainers tended to give similar scores compared to each other, scientists tended to vary more from one scientist to another (with the exception of neck positions), Visser said. There also appeared to be a significant discrepancy between average scores given by the trainers compared to those given by the scientists.

"It's a very important starting point in discussing behavior of ridden horses," Visser said. "Scientists and practitioners need to develop, together, some kind of guidelines in evaluating ridden horses. (Trainers) will need to be challenged to objectively describe horse behavior responses. And scientists will need to be challenged to observe horses as a whole (without focusing so much on individual body parts).

"At some point you have to come to a point where you look at the whole picture (of the horse), and that's what professional trainers do," she added.

Ultimately, the right combination of experience and science could help improve ridden horses' welfare, Visser concluded.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.