This article provides an introductory look at the field of scientific research and education known as “equitation science.” It introduces equitation science and how it relates to and informs a better understanding of digestive health for horses in work. We will continue to explore this topic in ongoing posts; be sure to follow SUCCEED Equine on Facebook and sign up for our enewsletter for future articles and further discussion.
Any time a human comes in contact with a horse, the horse is changed. Some human interventions are simple and clearly beneficial, like providing safety from predators and access to dental, hoof and veterinary care. Others that are seemingly normal to us, like keeping horses stalled and feeding grain, are significant departures from equine nature. The effects of our husbandry practices and usage impact horses mentally, behaviorally and physiologically.
There’s a wide spectrum of approaches in equestrian philosophy from “win at any cost” to “welfare at any cost.” But the happiest horses and riders, and the most successful, tend to fall somewhere in the middle. This probably describes you, whose goals are to enjoy riding and doing well at the shows by way of positive relationships with healthy horses.
We call this “doing right by the horse.”
This approach is supported by an emerging field of research called “equitation science.” Developed throughout the last decade, researchers are working to understand, scientifically, how improving equine welfare affects outcomes in training and performance (and vice versa). Currently, studies have focused primarily on riding principles, such as leg and bit pressure, and learning theory to improve welfare in horse training. However, we also know that equine welfare begins with the basics of husbandry – daily care, feeding and the like. Thus, understanding and supporting digestive health is a key consideration in the equitation science model.
For years we have preached that emphasizing welfare, and digestive health specifically, is essential to getting the best from your horse. Equitation science studies are revealing, with strong physical evidence, not just how important welfare is but why.
Understanding the basics of equitation science can inform your approach to horsemanship while offering a deeper understanding of the relationship between the horse’s digestive health and performance.
Introducing Equitation Science
For the benefit of American readers, we need to re-define the term “equitation.” While it has been repurposed to typically refer to “rider position and aids” on the show circuit, the original and worldwide definition describes the more general “act or art of riding horseback.”
Equitation science is the application of scientific methods to assess objectively the welfare of horses undergoing training. The field has been developed and promoted by Dr. Andrew McLean, an Australian eventer and veterinarian, and Dr. Paul McGreevy, professor at University of Sydney. Their work gave birth to the organization International Society for Equitation Science (ISES). ISES advises the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the governing body for international horse sports, and provides university coursework, training and clinics throughout the equine industry. Visit the ISES website to learn more about this field, the organization and the 10 core principles of equitation science.
Linking Equitation Science and Equine Digestive Health
Drs. McLean and McGreevy’s 2010 book, Equitation Science, describes eight factors that influence welfare and success in horse training:
Notice the sixth item on the list: equine health and soundness. While the majority of the work in equitation science to date has prioritized learning processes, environment, and human biomechanics, balance, knowledge and skills, the health of the horse is a key component that must also be explored.
The fact is, no amount of right riding and handling can make up for performance issues related to a horse’s poor, or even sub-optimal, health.
Digestive health is central to overall health, especially for the horse that needs to be able to perform. A horse’s gut health influences:
- Muscle condition
- Exercise recovery
- Mental focus
- Hoof health
- Physical comfort
To name some of those most essential to performance ability.
Equitation science research focuses on measurable physical responses, such as respiratory and heart rates or the release of cortisol, when the horse is subjected to specific stimuli in a controlled environment. For example, how does the horse respond physiologically to increasing bit pressure?
As of yet, equitation science has not delved deeply into the links between training horses and digestive health. However, as the field grows and expands there is ample opportunity and reason to show objectively and quantitatively the effects of training on gut health and gut health on training.
Human Involvement, Equine Digestive Health and Horse Welfare
Unfortunately, many equestrians are unaware that the most basic and common practices in modern horse care run so contrary to equine nature.
In a published paper on “Ethical equitation: Applying a cost-benefit approach,” McGreevy summarizes some of the issues:
In addition to stabling, feeding grain, restricting forage to a few meals a day instead of free access, limited turnout, training, traveling and competing have all been shown to challenge equine digestive health.
The costs of our involvement are higher than we realize, and our horses are the ones who pay.
How Equitation Science Can Help
The tenth equitation science core principle is to “demonstrate minimum levels of arousal sufficient for training (to ensure absence of conflict).” This simply means that the horse must be as relaxed as possible in order to learn and perform.
A horse cannot achieve relaxation with the presence of underlying pain or discomfort or if it lacks sufficient energy, condition and strength to be receptive to work and learning.
We clearly cannot afford to ignore the importance of digestive health in horses, and we must take measures to improve it. Equitation science only makes this case increasingly more compelling. Our hope is that the field will continue to expand and include further research measuring the relationships between gut physiology and training and performance.
In summary, the field of equitation science and its ongoing findings surrounding welfare and performance in horses advocates for better horsemanship, including crucial attention to good digestive health.
Start considering what you can do to improve your approach to horse training and husbandry, for your horse at its best.