Imagine a conversation between you and your horse, if horses could talk.
You: Good morning Spunky. Ready for a ride?
Spunky: Not really.
You: Oh come on. Don’t you want to go out and work some dressage patterns? How about some trail riding, or maybe some jumping?
Spunky: Nope. Pretty happy right here with my buddies, but thanks for offering!
No, we’re not about to tell you that researchers have found a way to make horses talk. But if they could, this is the kind of thing horses might say. European equitation scientists recently concluded that, when given the choice, horses prefer not to work at all; in fact, it appears they’d rather be back in their resting place with their food and equine pals.
“For a social, prey animal, it’s not surprising that horses will generally choose feeding and social contact over locomotion,” said Uta König von Borstel, PhD, researcher at the University of Göttingen in Germany.
König von Borstel and her fellow researcher Julia Keil, BSc, of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna in Vienna, Austria, created a study in which horses were given the choice of more or less work. The team trained 18 warmblood horses in an arena set up with a Y-shaped entrance. If they took the left branch of the Y, they would work two circles before the rider dismounted. If they took the right branch of the Y, they would work only one circle before the rider dismounted. Once the horses had been trained sufficiently in that pattern, the riders dismounted and the horses were allowed to make the choice themselves: right branch or left branch?
As it turns out, they didn’t seem to choose either one, König von Borstel said. In fact, their favorite choice was usually the exit.
“Results from the study suggest that horses prefer exiting the riding arena rather than being ridden at all,” she said.
Whether that constitutes the horse as “lazy,” though, is up for discussion.
“Lazy is an anthropomorphic (human-attributing) word that might not be right to use with horses,” König von Borstel said. “It’s really just a matter of preference for them. Our study seemed to be asking the horses to choose the highest priority among several competing motivations—food, social contact, and work.”
Previous research has also suggested that horses will avoid any extra physical exercise and jumping when given the choice, she added. In fact, one study showed that they would rather be in the stall than in the paddock for turnout.
“They choose whatever is less work, which could be considered in colloquial terms ‘lazy,’” she said.
Incidental behavioral observations during the study also revealed that the horses in the study perceived riding—and especially mounting—as uncomfortable, she added.
Even so, good riding (which takes into consideration the horse’s physical health) should not be considered a threat to equine welfare, König von Borstel said. Even if asking a horse to do something it doesn’t want to might seem contrary to its welfare, being a riding horse is good for its welfare in the long term, she said.
“The very vast majority of humans won’t keep horses only to keep them as a pet on pasture,” she said. “So the decision, then, is between having: (1) horses whose welfare might be slightly compromised for an hour or so per day by us riding them, or (2) having, in the long run, very few or no horses altogether, as we will have no ‘use’ for them and they are too expensive (for most people) to be kept as pets.”
But even in the short term, horses might experience welfare advantages to riding that they otherwise would not, she added.
“The horse may be really happy to return to the barn after the ride (hungry, tired, ready for food and rest, and very happy to receive just that), but a horse that has been in the barn all day might not experience that kind of satisfaction because the situation is normal for it and it does not develop strong cravings for anything,” she explained. “Emotions are generally strongest in response to some change in situation.”
The study, "Horses’ behavior and heart rate in a preference test for shorter and longer riding bouts," was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.