The 2019 BETA market survey identified 27 million people within the UK are interested in the equestrian industry, an industry itself which is worth £4.3 billion, and appears to be increasing. Approximately 26% of equestrian sport participants have competed within the last year, supporting the range and number of performance horses within the country.
While animal-centred sports remain a point of debate within the UK public, governing bodies such as the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) promote training which supports equine welfare. Despite this, there is a risk that young horses may be pushed through training at a young age, in addition to certain training aids, including incorrectly fitted nosebands and strong bits, being utilised alongside poor riding or training methods. Unwanted or agonistic behaviours – often referred to as ‘conflict behaviours’ – in the ridden horse may result from conflicting or confusing signals from the rider, for example leg and hand pressure utilised simultaneously.
While the FEI promotes the head position being slightly in front of the vertical, over the last decade there has been an increase in the number of top performance horses, particularly within dressage, being ridden with the nasal plane behind the vertical, with reports of these horses being awarded higher dressage marks by judges.
Equine conflict behaviours include tail swishing, head movements, incorrect head position and tension in the muscles surrounding the mouth, with the most widely recognised agonistic response being the head position behind the vertical (Kienapfel et al., 2014). While the FEI promotes the head position being slightly in front of the vertical, over the last decade there has been an increase in the number of top performance horses, particularly within dressage, being ridden with the nasal plane behind the vertical, with reports of these horses being awarded higher dressage marks by judges (Lashley et al., 2014).
The lack of precise guidelines in dressage marking have appeared to result in high variability in marks and judging, even at Olympic level, however it is clear that future developments of a more objective system should reward riders demonstrating optimum training methods, with consideration of conflict and discomfort within the dyad. The current study, run by researchers at the University of Edinburgh utilising video footage from British Dressage affiliated competitions, sought to identify whether judge marking within dressage competitions at Preliminary, Novice and Elementary level competitions considered conflict behaviours and horse antagonistic responses.
Seventy-five horse/rider combinations were included in the final study, with 447 movements in total analysed. Video footage of individual tests were analysed using blind testing (where the analyser was not aware of the final test mark) for horse behavioural responses using previously developed descriptions of conflict behaviour (Gorecka-Bruzda et al., 2015) and pain-related behaviour (Hall et al., 2014; Dyson et al., 2018), and these were matched against judge marks. Two or more conflict behaviours were identified within 83% of the total movements analysed – with head position of horses either behind or on the vertical gaining significantly higher judge marks than those in front of the vertical.
Despite this, horse whole body movements indicative of conflict did receive lower dressage marks by judges and additionally horses with ears held forwards were awarded higher dressage marks. Interestingly, the type of noseband use was associated with tail and mouth behaviours, and head position. Flash nosebands were associated with increased tail behaviours, grackle nosebands were associated with increased nasal plane angle behaviour, and increased mouth behaviour scores were most often noted with grackle or Micklem nosebands. Level of competition and specific movements additionally impacted the presence of antagonistic behaviours, with increased behavioural scores at Novice level compared to Prelim level, and at working canter.
The study suggested that while there was no association between overall presence of conflict behaviours and judge marks, when individual categories of behavioural responses were considered, it was clear that judges were accounting for some, but not all, conflict behaviours during test riding. Mouth, tail and poll-to-wither behaviour were not associated with judge marks, whereas ear movement, head position and whole body behaviour were, suggesting judges may be more attuned to certain behaviours over others.
Stakeholders and performance judges should be championing and rewarding those riders who base their training and competitive performances around the welfare of the horse.
The primary concern of the study is the higher dressage marks awarded to horses with the head position behind the vertical, in direct conflict with the FEI dressage rules. The position of the head should be reflective of the horse’s level of training, and those working behind the vertical are typically indicative of incorrect training techniques, poor riding or lower training levels. It was surprising to note that judges did not penalise mouth tension or resistance during test riding, however it is recognised that judges only have a short period of time to assess the horse, and therefore may miss slight behavioural changes.
It is clear from the results of this study that dressage performance within competitions is currently not being assessed in accordance with FEI guidelines, with certain conflict behaviours being rewarded and many being ignored. The development of a more objective and encompassing judging criteria may mitigate some of these risks, however this would need to be supported by more comprehensive training and professional development of judges. To ensure the perseverance and sustainability of the equestrian performance industry, industry bodies, stakeholders and performance judges should be championing and rewarding those riders who base their training and competitive performances around the welfare of the horse.