Study: Elite Dressage Horses Are ‘Reasonably Comfortable’
The facial expressions and body language of top-level dressage horses reveal that, overall, the animals experience little discomfort while competing, according to a new study.

“Most of these upper-level horses are reasonably comfortable,” said Sue Dyson, MA, VetMB, PhD, DEO, FRCVS, former head of Clinical Orthopaedics at the Animal Health Trust Centre for Equine Studies, in Newmarket, England.

Some, however, show mild signs of musculoskeletal discomfort. “There are still a minority that could be helped (especially during movements that are biomechanically more difficult),” she said.

Dyson and her fellow researchers made these evaluations using their recently developed Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE). They had previously determined that an RHpE score of 8 or more indicated the horse had musculoskeletal pain. While none of the horses in her new study reached this score during their performance, some got close and others exhibited mild signs of discomfort when carrying out certain exercises, such as piaffe, which is known to be challenging for horses.

Meanwhile, the researchers also noted that dressage scores generally tended to be higher when RHpE scores were lower among these horses, said Dyson.

The RHpE could provide valuable feedback for high-level dressage riders who’d like to make their rides better and more comfortable for their horses. “My message to riders and trainers is that if we identify those horses with higher RHpE scores, and we identify what was the cause of their problems, there is the potential to improve their comfort—and their performance and their welfare,” Dyson said.

The Ridden Horse Pain Ethogram (RHpE) and Elite Dressage Horses: Snapshots Prove Unreliable

Dyson’s findings help explain the “picture in time” phenomenon—photos of high-level competition horses looking like they’re in pain even if, generally, they’re not, she said.

“You can’t just look at snapshots (to know how a horse is feeling),” Dyson said. “You have to look at the whole picture and evaluate the entire test.”

Horses might show short-lived signs of discomfort if the rider cues them with a spur or if they’re struggling with the piaffe. “But that may be just one or two seconds in a six-and-a-half-minute test, so how is that representative of the overall comfort level of the horse?” she asked. “I don’t think it necessarily is.”

Social-Media-Inspired Study of 147 Grand Prix Horses

In fact, it was a photograph of a Grand Prix dressage horse that inspired Dyson to carry out the current study, she explained: “Someone sent me a photograph of a specific horse and asked me, ‘Is this horse suffering?’ And I said I couldn’t make a judgment call without seeing the video recording of the entire test.”

So Dyson and her co-author, Danica Pollard, MSc, an independent researcher in the U.K., observed videos of 147 horses competing at nine FEI World Cup dressage competitions in 2018 and 2019 and noted the animals’ behaviors during their entire dressage tests.

They found the most frequent RHpE was 3 out of 24 at this high level, “which means they are comfortable horses,” Dyson said.

Still, the scientists observed “a disturbingly high rate of occurrence of some behaviors,” which, said Dyson, “should be marked down by judges.”

Specifically, they saw that 68% of the horses had their mouths open with the teeth separated for at least 10 seconds, and 67% had their heads behind the vertical by at least 10 degrees for at least 10 seconds—which might reflect training or discomfort but is not necessarily a “forced” position of hyperflexion, she explained. About 30% showed an intense stare for at least five seconds. And 29% swished their tails repetitively and not in synchrony with the use of spurs.

They saw the most signs of discomfort in the piaffe. “The piaffe is a very demanding movement,” Dyson said. “And there were very few horses that could actually perform it without either showing some signs of transient discomfort or being able to perform it correctly, according to FEI guidelines.”

Also: Dressage Judges Don’t Catch Everything

The researchers also reviewed the way horses performed specific movements, relative to the FEI guidelines for those movements, such as passage, piaffe, canter flying changes, canter pirouettes, and an exercise series calling for halt, immobility, rein-back five steps, then collected trot.

Some movements were rarely performed correctly according to FEI guidelines. “For example, if you’re looking at the hind limbs during piaffe, the hoof of the raised hind limb should come up to the mid cannon level of the limb that is bearing weight,” Dyson told The Horse. “Now, there are very few horses that achieve this on a consistent basis.”

It’s something some FEI judges appear to overlook, she said.

“It would appear that, despite consistency among judges, the judging does not always reliably follow the FEI guidelines,” Dyson explained.

However, it’s also possible the judges simply weren’t sitting in a position where they could see these errors, she added.

If they do catch the errors, though, it’s a drop in score that could have been prevented, she added. “Some riders may be throwing marks away by, for example, not halting at the required marker or not performing the correct number of steps in rein-back,” said Dyson. “Marks could potentially be gained by more accurate test riding.”