Horse riding is a popular activity, with almost 5 million horses kept for recreational purposes in the U.S alone. Keeping a horse for riding represents a significant investment, with surveys suggesting that the average cost of horse ownership is $3,876 per horse, per year. While many riders undoubtedly enjoy a strong bond with their horses, there are problems with associated with riding.
The process for getting a horse to accept a rider is usually referred to as “breaking.” Methods vary from throwing a horse to the ground with rope until exhausted, to the gentler daily training and sporadic riding to get a horse to slowly accept being ridden. Regardless of how kindly this process is done, it require coercing and conditioning horses to perform a function that is entirely unnatural to them. When a horse does accept a rider, it is thought that what we are seeing is actually a form of learned helplessness, the horse simply learns to accept the treatment as they slowly accept that they have no control over what is happening to them. Despite the insistence of many riders that horses learn to enjoy being ridden, and that horses often form close and lasting bonds with their riders, this does not change the fact that horses are forced to accept a rider against their will. A lack of resistance does not mean that a horse has consented to being ridden, it simply means a horse has figured out that it is in their best interests to allow it to happen. Even the term “breaking” implies an acknowledgement of the truth of this fact.
The process of breaking is usually done young, as older horses are more difficult to train. However, studies demonstrate that the epiphyseal plates in the body of the lumbar vertebrae of thoroughbred horses is not fully developed until they are between 6 and 9 years old, and that riding them before this time can cause lasting injuries. Even after this age, damage to the spine resulting from riding is common. In one study, 91.5% of ridden horses studied were diagnosed with some kind of alteration of the spine after x-ray, even though they seemed perfectly healthy prior to the scan. On top of the process of riding, many riders inflict additional harm on their horses using instruments like harnesses, bits and whips; even saddles can restrict blood flow and cause chafing, this is not including general injuries sustained by horses which are part and parcel of being ridden. Bits are particularly harmful, as they damage horse’s sensitive nerves, their teeth, tongue and palate. Though most owner’s prefer to euthanise animals when they become too old or sick to walk or ride, some owners do send their horses to slaughter. One in particular, an owner of a horse equipment shop, explained the reasoning: “I really love horses. But when they’re no good to me, what are you going to do with them? We don’t want to take ‘em out back and shoot ‘em. They may just as well be slaughtered, and get some use out of them.” Another commented that: “Chickens for eggs, lambs for wool, cows for milk, horses for work, and when their useful, productive life has passed, then you turn them into meat.”
Even if horses sustain no injuries whatsoever as a result of being ridden, are properly retired and are well cared for as many are, riding them is still exploitative by its very nature. Horses need exercise, but they no more require riding than dogs do, therefore doing so is mostly for the benefit of the rider, not the horse. Using animals as entertainment in this way is against their better interests and is not something that any responsible pet owner should take part in. It is far kinder to allow horses to run freely in enclosed spaces, or be walked by hand without a rider. This minimises potential injury to the horse and allows them to receive stimulation and exercise without having to bare the burden of a rider. We cannot release most of these horses into the wild to enjoy a life of freedom, but we can at least emulate their natural environment as best we can by allowing horses to walk, run and exercise on their own terms, rather than using them as recreation activities and entertainment.