Horse Performance: A Focus on Winning or Equine Welfare?

Subjective measures of a horse’s performance might not always line up with good welfare.
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show jumper
Success in show jumping can change based on course design, venue, and objective factors, such as what counts as a refusal. | Getty Images
In the equestrian world, “the best” performance isn’t always easy to define. With varying venues, different course designs, subjective tests, and a range of environmental factors, it can be difficult to determine “a good performance,” said a leading equine scientist.

David Marlin, PhD, an independent science consultant, said regulatory bodies will likely progress toward more objective ways to measure performance in horse sport and include measurements of good welfare. Meanwhile, owners and riders can continue to strive toward performance goals that respect each horse’s physical and mental limits.

“Performance is incredibly complex,” said Marlin during the 2022 International Society for Equitation Science (ISES) Conference, held Aug. 9-12 in Hartpury, U.K. “I think we still need to do a lot more work to understand what the factors are that determine performance in different disciplines and the welfare impact of that.”

Performance: Objective, Subjective, and Everywhere in Between

Machines, like cars and computers, usually have clear performance indicators, such as levels of power and speed, Marlin said. And in many human sports, performance is well-defined in consistent, objective terms.

“The thing about the 100 meters is it’s always the same 100 meters,” he said. “The runners know what the track is going to be like; they know it’s going to be straight; they know how wide the lanes are going to be … It’s always pretty much the same wherever you run.”

In equine sports, however, this is rarely the case, he said. Harness racing provides fairly objective performance indicators, with the winner determined by speed alone across set distances on standardized tracks. Flat racing, meanwhile, has some objective parameters, but performance still also depends on many subjective parameters.

Show jumping performance can depend considerably on course design and venue, said Marlin. Objective performance indicators, such as time faults and refusals, also come into play. However, “it’s almost always clear which horse and rider have won and why,” he said.

Endurance initially appears objective, but performance also depends on different courses and the environment, as well as subjective veterinary reviews during the course, he continued. Similarly, cross-country has a mix of objective and subjective performance variables.

“So a horse that performs well over this one course isn’t necessarily going to perform consistently well over different types of courses,” Marlin said. “There are patterns that we can see that some horses will perform better under certain types of presentation of courses than others.”

Dressage performance is highly subjective, Marlin explained. “(There’s a) qualitative assessment of performance, so this means there’s a high potential for both positive and negative bias from the judges,” he said.

The Makings of Good Performance

Not all horses can reach the same level of sports performance based on physical and mental abilities alone, said Marlin. Much of that has to do with breeding—and, unsurprisingly, genetics research reveals the greatest heritability of performance is found in the disciplines with the highest levels of objective performance indicators.

Because of the genetic component, as well as other environmental factors, horses have physical and mental limitations to performance, he explained. “Probably the most common reason (for suboptimal performance) is simply, genetically, you (as the horse) don’t have the talent,” he said.

In addition, rider and trainer skill can significantly affect performance, he added.

Welfare and Performance

Efforts to improve a horse’s performance through unethical means not only hinder welfare but damage the public image of equine sports, Marlin said.

“We probably have the premise, or we should have the premise, that good performance is going to be associated with good welfare,” he explained. “So horses that are really well managed, are not in a stressed environment, are better than horses that have poor welfare.”

That isn’t always true, though, he said. Some people use aversive methods to achieve certain performance goals—to the detriment of equine welfare.

“Why do people do this?” he asked. “It could be that actually, unfortunately, (this method) is associated with better performance in some horses.”

However, such methods have no place in ethical sport, he explained.

“If we want to maintain our social license to operate, we have to eliminate these sort of things which are visible and which are—well, they’re abuse; there’s no other word for it,” Marlin said.

Fortunately, riders like Swedish show jumper Peder Fredricson are helping provide a positive image of equestrian sports by competing at high levels with horses that have the natural capacity to perform well and have undergone welfare-friendly management and training methods with skilled and educated riders and handlers, he said.

Wanting Good Performance for the Right Reasons

Horse people should aim for good performance for many reasons, Marlin said.

“If you’re an individual or a team, you want to be competitive,” he said. “You want to understand how to achieve good performance. You should want to promote, preserve, and improve welfare, on the premise that good welfare should improve performance. And, also, you want to minimize the risk of injury.”

Promotion, preservation, and improvement of welfare through good performance concerns organizers, course designers, and governing bodies, in addition to owners and riders, said Marlin. “You want to ensure that if you’re running competitions, you’re setting an appropriate competitive demand … and that you’re not getting too many injuries during competition,” he said.

Marlin said scientists need to strive to find links between performance and welfare. “We should start with the assumption that high welfare should be a feature of good performance,” he said, adding it’s still unclear how to do that. “And I think we need to look at how to change practices to improve welfare.”

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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