Better knowledge of equine behavior could improve well-being, performance and safety

  • INCREASING and applying knowledge of equine behavior that may indicate pain could improve horse well-being and performance, as well as rider safety.

    Sue Dyson, former head of orthopedics at the Animal Health Trust, discussed the range of uses for her Riding Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) at the Saddle Research Trust conference on December 11.

    The RHpE includes 24 behaviors, including tail swing and an open mouth, the presence of eight or more of which may indicate that the horse has musculoskeletal pain, even if it is not openly limping. Dr Dyson developed the ethogram through research that included evaluating lame and non-lame horses, but over the past four years he has expanded its applications.

    “I believe horses are trying to communicate with us – we just have to learn to listen,” she said.

    Dr Dyson shared some of his recent research on RHpE, including a study last year involving a group of horses each ridden by a novice rider and a professional rider. This revealed that although there was a significant overall improvement in gait quality with the professional rider – and 11 horses showed low intensity lameness with the novice but not the expert – there was no significant difference in the RHpE scores of the horses between the two riders. Some horses showed different abnormal behaviors with the two riders, although the total score did not change.

    “The head in front of the vertical more than 30 degrees for at least 10 seconds was seen a lot more with the novice rider, but the head behind the vertical of 10 degrees or more for at least 10 seconds was seen a lot more with the pro . “said Dr Dyson, adding that another sign, the horse reluctant to move forward, was seen much more in the professional than in the novice.” This means that a good rider may be able to ‘improve the quality of gait or conceal lameness, but cannot conceal behavioral signs of pain. “

    Dr Dyson evaluated wetsuits ranging from novice to grand prix level at a UK dressage event last year, and found that although the median RHpE score was three, the range was zero to 10 , and that horses scoring between seven and 10 showed “compromised performance.” compatible, I believe, with musculoskeletal pain, ”such as inability to muster or poor galloping.

    “I believe that with proper investigation and management, there is potential for improvement in these horses, resulting in improved performance and well-being,” she said.

    Another assessment using the RHpE, of 147 dressage horses competing in a World Cup competition, found a median score of three, so most horses “worked comfortably”, but the highest score was seven, and Dr Dyson said he made “disturbing observations”. . Of the elite horses, 68% had their mouths open and teeth splayed for at least 10 seconds, and 87% had their heads behind vertical, “for at least 10 seconds and often throughout the test”. Dr Dyson also noticed a negative correlation between RHpE scores and judges’ scores, which could indicate that horses without discomfort performed better.

    Studies at a slightly lower tier grand prix show and at a national event showed a stronger negative correlation between RHpE scores and scores, and at the national event the median RHpE score was ” significantly ”higher, at six.

    Dr. Dyson’s studies found many more horses showing the sign of open-mouth discomfort during high-level dressage competitions than during lower-level eventing tests, causing her to question the use of the double flange. She referred to another study which found horses with poorer dressage scores were more likely to fall or knock over their riders across the country at FEI events, adding that her research had found horses with higher RHpE scores did less well in dressage.

    “So by identifying horses with scores of seven or more, studying the problem and treating it, we could potentially improve safety as well as performance and well-being,” she said.

    Data and evaluations of eventing horses between BE90 and novice level revealed that horses placed in the top three had lower RHpE scores.

    “I believe that as runners we have a moral responsibility to recognize if there is a problem and take the appropriate action,” said Dr Dyson. “And I believe there is a moral responsibility to educate riders, trainers, vets and paraprofessionals on RHpE as a tool to recognize that a horse may have an underlying problem.”

    Dr. Dyson recognized that some horses can have difficult behavior that is not caused by pain, but this is often a problem rather than a combination. It may also happen that a lame horse does not exhibit eight or more abnormal behaviors when ridden.

    “But I think we need to educate everyone to be more aware of abnormal behaviors as a reflection of musculoskeletal discomfort,” she said. “We must maintain our social license to operate, and we have a moral and ethical responsibility. I think we can improve the welfare and performance of horses, their behavior and the safety of riders. It’s a win-win situation.

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