Making equestrian sports safer for the horses

Sports Tuesday 04/July/2023 16:45 PM
By: DW
Making equestrian sports safer for the horses
German seven-time Olympic gold medallist Isabel Werth's horse is among those taking part in the studyImage: Elmar Kremser/SvenSimon/picture alliance

The protection of horses may not be an issue that is usually a burning topic for the casual sports fan. However, the issue gained global attention at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in 2021, when a German coach was disqualified for striking a horse with her fist during the women's modern pentathlon.

While the incident raised questions about what does and doesn't amount to animal cruelty in equestrian sports, in Germany, at least, the rules meant to protect the animals are quite clear.

"No one may inflict pain, suffering or harm on an animal without reasonable cause," states Paragraph 1 of the country's Animal Protection Act. Paragraph 3 states that it is forbidden to "demand performance from an animal that it is obviously not capable of, due to its condition or that obviously exceeds its strength."

Emotional discussion

The problem, though, lies in the interpretation of these rules. What a rider may regard as acceptable actions to control a horse may be perceived quite differently by others.

Andrea Mihali: "Regulations only work if they are applied consistently"Image: Andrea Mihali/Deutscher Tierschutzbund e.V.

The Deutscher Tierschutzbund (German Animal Welfare Association) takes a critical view of equestrian sports but does not reject it out of hand - instead calling for improvements in how the horses are treated.

"Most of the rules in equestrian sport make sense, but there is an incredible lack of enforcement," Andrea Mihali, a veterinarian and horse expert with the Tierschutzbund told DW.

"There are stewards and judges at the preparation areas, but they often don't pull the riders out when the regulations are being violated," she said. And regulations are only helpful if they are applied consistently.

In the preparation arenas and during competition tests, you will sometimes see horses being ridden for minutes on end in rollkur (using the reins to pull the horse's head down toward the chest, severely stretching the horse's neck).

"You can clearly see that the animals are suffering discomfort, and in some cases fear," Mihali said, noting that there have been cases of horses not being withdrawn from a competition even when bleeding from the mouth.

"A horse's capacity is often overestimated," Mihali added.

Gathering scientific data

To counter this problem, the CHIO Aachen, one of the world's most prestigious equestrian tournaments, has launched a new initiative, the "Scientist Circle." The aim is to use scientific data to objectively monitor the horses' well-being during the tournament.

"For us it is very important to lead the sport towards a good future," Birgit Rosenberg, head of sport at the CHIO Aachen told DW of the pilot study, which is to involve six horses.

German eventing rider Anna Siemer is keen to learn more about her horseImage: Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture alliance

"We are looking to find out how sport horses fare during competitive events and what they need to ensure their welfare in the long term," Dirk Winter, professor of equine economics at Nürtingen-Geislingen University told DW.

Along with a number of other equine researchers from Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, Winter is hoping to learn more about the horses' needs regarding travel and accommodation - as well as which situations cause them stress.

Brain waves - before, during and after stress

Among the tools to be used will be cameras to monitor a horse's behaviour, including sleep patterns in the box - plus a chemical analysis of the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the horse's feces. Both are to be evaluated in comparison with measurements and observations previously made in a horse's home stable under resting conditions. One of the six horses is to have his brain waves measured via a special head hood - before, during and after competition.

"The evaluation will give us initial indications of which brain waves can be detected in horses during a stress situation and during an event," Winter said. "The results should give us initial indications of what may be needed to further improve the horses' well-being."

German eventing rider Anna Siemer jumped at the opportunity to take part in the study with her horse.

"The more relaxed my horse is, the better her performance will be," said Siemer, who is hoping to learn about more than just the level of fear and stress her horse experiences.

"I also want to find out how much joy my horse has when it rides into a water obstacle, for example," she said. "I'm quite sure that horses, know when they have performed particularly well, and that they can use this to their advantage. This where I'm hoping to get insights, too."

Main responsibility remains with the riders

The research in Aachen is being conducted under virtually ideal conditions – in terms of accommodations for the animals, space, training facilities, ground conditions and other support.

Preliminary results are expected in the autumn, and it will take another few months for the scientists to complete their analysis. However, much more interesting than those results will be to see how people involved in equestrian sports – and animal rights activists react to the findings.

For now, though, the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of the horses lies primarily with the riders. After all, they, along with the grooms, know the animals best and are thus best placed to assess most accurately whether the next jump or next obstacle can be taken safely – or whether for the good of the horse, it would be better to pull up short.