I recently watched a a video compilation of horses exhibiting unhappy expressions and behaviours with a voiceover about the trials of dealing with cantankerous mares. Intending to be funny, it played on the stereotype of mares being opinionated, difficult, or generally marish, and chestnut mares being even worse.
My curious scientist mind sent me down the TikTok rabbit hole to unearth an unending stream of horses falling, somersaulting over fences, biting, bucking, rearing, exhibiting stereotypies, displaying high anxiety or extreme pain reactions, all under an umbrella of humour.
In the following, I discuss why these ubiquitous videos are, in fact, not particularly funny and pose a problem for horses, for owners, and for the equine industry.
A problem for horses: The mare stereotype is inaccurate and sexist
The original video that triggered this writing, of mares exhibiting disagreeable faces and postures, fuels a stereotype that does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. In an email conversation initiated by equine veterinarian and pain specialist Dr. Sue Dyson (of “24 Behaviours of the Ridden Horse in Pain” fame) she said, “I was a bit aghast when I looked at the compilation.” She commented that they perpetuate the myth that cantankerous behaviour in mares (and moreso of chestnut mares) is normal, and markedly different to that of geldings, which is simply not supported by scientific evidence. “The majority of these horses showed grumpy behaviour, and horses that are free from pain are not grumpy.” (Dyson, 2023).
Equine ethologist Renate Larssen concurs that there is no empirical evidence for mare/gelding differences in training or performance, although there is indeed evidence of an anti-mare prejudice. “Our opinions about mares seem to be based purely on transferred prejudice about sex and gender.” (Larssen, 2022).
In my own social media perusal, I found several examples that perpetuated this gendered myth: “I blanket my gelding because he is a sweet baby angel, and leave my red mare exposed because the devil will keep her warm,” or “I strongly recommend an older gentleman gelding. They are usually more steady of temperament, no hormonal rages, less attitude.”
If you doubt the mare gender bias, just reflect on how we view undesirable and aggressive stallion behaviour (admiring his machismo and virility), compared to similar behaviours displayed by a mare (disparaging her ill-tempered malevolent nature). When a stallion is showing interest in mares, his studdy behaviour is pardoned, but a mare in season, squatting and winking at the neighbouring gelding, is labelled a whore or a slut – a double whammy gender bias that targets both mares and sex-trade workers!
A problem for owners: The horse is not the source
Settling for these simplistic explanations becomes a problem for owners because it allows us to set the bar too low, to evade the responsibility of sleuthing out the real and often obscure sources of an animal’s discomfort. Consider this comment from my social media search – “I have a moody mare and feel it is a lot her wanting to be in power” – that permits the owner to be less than adequate, to fall short of being their horse’s champion and strongest advocate. Fortunately, there are other online contributors who offer sage advice: “Two things I recommend, red raspberry leaves or straight magnesium.”
As Larssen comments, “Instead of perpetuating the myth of the moody mare, we need to start viewing ‘marish’ behavior for what it is: information that she is stressed, in pain, afraid, tired, affected by hormones, confused about our cues, experiencing separation anxiety, and so on. The responsibility for her behavior will then lie not with her, but squarely where it belongs: with us.”
A problem for the equine industry: Threats to our Social License to Operate (SLO)
Finally, the cantankerous mare videos, as well as the plethora of “funny” videos of horses engaged in all manner of distressed and dangerous behaviours pose a threat to equestrian activity’s Social Licence to Operate (SLO) – an unwritten, implicit, and fluid agreement between the public and an industry or group that allows the industry self-governance with minimal external restrictions (Douglas, Owers, & Campbell, 2022). The keeping and riding of horses for pleasure and competition is potentially more vulnerable to negative public opinion because it involves the use of an animal. And, horses, unlike rodents, will garner even greater public sympathy because they are perceived as intelligent, majestic, and awe-inspiring.
In a global survey of more than 27,000 equestrians, 78% believed that welfare standards needed improving, and fully 50% believed that sport horses mostly do not enjoy what they do.
The Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) has recently created a 10-member Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission (EEWC) of equine scientists, veterinarians, equestrian athletes, representatives of Horse Welfare associations, and FEI administrators, to address SLO with the goal of ensuring that equine welfare is championed as a top priority and therefore worthy of ongoing social acceptance of horses being used in sport. In the EEWBC’s 2022 global survey of over 14,000 members of the public, 68% believed that equine welfare standards were inadequate and 15% believed it was impossible to ensure adequate welfare protection. Alarmingly, 67% believed horses most likely do not enjoy being used in sport. These disturbing statistics were closely paralleled in an identical EEWBC global survey of more than 27,000 equestrians where 78% believed that welfare standards needed improving, and 6% believed that it was impossible to provide adequate welfare protection. Fully 50% believed that sport horses mostly do not enjoy what they do.
These statistics highlight equestrian sport’s perilous position where the court of public opinion is not on our side; even within our industry there are serious doubts that equine welfare is being maintained. Videos of distressed, anxious, or in-pain horses not only shout out to the world that our sport is rife with unhappy horses, but also that we are sufficiently glib as to think that unhappy horses are hilarious.
Interestingly, both Sue Dyson and I independently showed the grumpy mare video to our non-horsey friends, who did not find it funny. Apparently, their unjaded, horse-virgin eyes saw the horses’ pain and distress more accurately than horse people, whose constant exposure to horses’ physiological and psychological suffering has made them normalize, downplay, or even mock these distraught behaviours.
This myopia about horse suffering has also been born out in the research. In a 2016 study monitoring abnormal behaviours of 373 riding school horses, Lesimple and Hausberger found marked discrepancies between the occurrence of stereotypies reported by researchers (37% of the horses were observed cribbing, weaving, stall walking, and so on) and that reported by the horses’ caretakers (only 5% of the horses were identified as exhibiting any stereotypies). The researchers compared this inability to see the animals’ psychological distress to research that reveals a similar blindness in medical professionals whose prolonged exposure to suffering individuals desensitizes and distorts their perceptions of normal behaviours and expressions (Lesimple & Hausberger, 2016).
Many of us learned to ride at lesson barns where school horses often suffer from low-grade multi-limb lameness and display pain behaviours; thus begins a life-long misunderstanding about what ‘normal’ horse behaviour looks like.
Dyson and colleagues also found significant differences between horse owners’ reports and real time researcher observations of abnormal behaviours exhibited by their horses when being tacked up, again suggesting that discomfort behaviours become so normalized that we simply stop seeing them.
Dyson comments that many of us learned to ride at lesson barns where school horses often suffer from low-grade multi-limb lameness and display pain behaviours such as ears back, tail swishing, reluctance to move forward, having a glazed, zoned-out expression, or threatening to bite or kick while being tacked up. From an early age we have come to accept these responses as normal because they are so ubiquitous, and thus begins a life-long misunderstanding about what normal horse behaviour looks like.
Dyson stresses that we have robust evidence-based information (including her own research) that these are not normal responses for pain-free horses who are managed properly – i.e., who have access to ample time outside of the stall, free-choice forage, and social interaction with other horses).
Protecting our Social Licence to Operate (SLO)
Several negative incidents in equestrian events at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, including an event horse who had to be euthanized and an incident in the Modern Pentathlon precipitated a public outcry about abusive practices in horse sport and fuelled a rapidly-growing movement to remove all equestrian events from the Games. On the strength of this damning press, the French National Assembly (French Parliament) commissioned a study group who has recently released a comprehensive report of 46 recommendations highlighting shortcomings and promoting changes or additional teeth to current regulations to make Paris 2024 an exemplar as “The Olympic Games of Equine Welfare.” It urges the Olympic Organizing Committee to take strong measures alongside the FEI and the French Federation of Equitation (FFE) to ensure equestrian sport’s sustainability and the public’s acceptance in a society “which appears more and more sensitive to the respect of animal welfare.”
Equine scientist Cristina Wilkins underlines the significance that these recommendations have been requested by the French government. When SLO is under threat, and reform is not seen as coming from within the industry, the next step is government intervention (Wilkins, 2023).
The FEI maintains, however, that many of these recommendations are already in place. An FEI spokesman told British media outlet Horse & Hound, “The FEI confirms that many of the recommendations proposed are already in the FEI rules and are just confirming what already exists. We believe that the FEI rules and Olympic and Paralympic regulations and the operations are guaranteeing horse welfare at the highest level.” At their Sports Forum in April, the FEI released its own set of 24 recommendations intended to to ensure a good life for horses in equestrian sport.
In a similar vein, The Happy Horse Project, the brainchild of the Swiss Animal Protection (SAP), with support of the Swiss Equestrian Federation (SEF), will award excellent horsemanship demonstrated in the warm-up arena in national dressage, show-jumping, and eventing competitions. Experienced and independent judges or trainers will assess competitors on their horses’ relaxation, suppleness, harmony with the rider, and preparedness for the competition. SEF president Damian Müller notes that it is not sufficient to punish abusive practices toward horses, but that positive interactions that highlight the relationship between horses and humans that makes equestrian sport so unique must also be rewarded (Jones, 2023).
These initiatives are crucial not only because they promote an image that happy horses and ethical equestrian sport exists, but also because it announces to the public that maintaining and cultivating high standards of equine well-being is valued by our industry.
Natalie Waran, chair of the EEWC, urges everyone in equestrian sport to be active participants not only in making equine welfare paramount “because it is the right thing to do,” but also so that we are “seen to be doing so.” All equestrians, she stresses, need to understand the impact of their actions, words, and use of images and their responsibility to actively address concerns related to Social Licence (Waran, 2022). Videos of distressed horses, portrayed as if their suffering were not only inconsequential but laughable, flies in the face of this responsibility.
As Dyson says, “I feel strongly that this type of depiction of horse behaviour is potentially playing into the hands of people who want us to stop riding horses … There is every reason to promote the cause of ‘happy’ pain-free equine athletes – it is a win-win situation for horses and riders and for the future of equestrianism.”
S.L.O. – or S.O.L.?
When I was typing out S-L-O, I frequently and inadvertently (undoubtedly, Freud would have something to say about this accident) typed S-O-L (“sh#t out of luck” for those of you not familiar with the acronym).
We are facing a precipice in equestrian sport. A few years ago, I would never have believed that our sport could be subject to external legislation such that it could be unrecognizably changed, or, horrors, potentially banned. However, even when I apply all my well-honed Scarlett O’Hara skills of “I can’t think about that now … I’ll think about that tomorrow,” I cannot manage to believe in our immunity any longer. Our SLO in equestrian sport is not a given; it is earned. When our SLO turns to SOL, the game is over.