This piece is written in my capacity as a leisure horse owner and amateur rider and reflects my personal opinion on the subject. When I refer to Horse Sport or Equestrian Sport, I’m talking about the Olympic disciplines and not the various forms of horse racing.

I’m a horse owner and many of my clients have businesses related to horses. The hot topic this week is that for the first time, the FEI, which is the international governing body for equestrian sport, has put out a survey titled Global Equine Ethics and Wellbeing in Horse Sports.

This is a clear signal that more people – and now, some in high places – are starting to have conversations about the role that horses and other animals play in our lives, in much the same way that, post-pandemic, they’ve perhaps started thinking a lot more about their own purpose and role in society.

There are a wide range of opinions on the topic – some pretty fixed and some more fluid – about the nature of the relationship between a human and a horse and the relative value or importance of a horse’s opinion or life, compared to that of a human. More radically, there are some who question our right to ride horses at all.

Consider this.

About 2000 years ago in the Roman Empire, everyone had pretty fixed ideas about women being inferior to men intellectually and physically and being “naturally dependent”. Athenian women were legally classified as children regardless of age and were the “legal property of some man at all stages in her life.” Female infanticide and abortion were practiced by all classes and as recently as 1983, an Australian woman needed authorisation from her husband to apply for a passport.

The good old days weren’t as good as we like to think they were and it’s fair to say that the dial moves slowly. But the point is, it moves.

It’s an accepted fact that horses were first domesticated about six thousand years ago in what is now modern-day Ukraine and West Kazakhstan. It’s not hard to imagine why humans were first attracted to horses because they aren’t only beautiful, they’re also useful and inclined to befriend us in a way that other species might not. It’s possible that if we looked more closely at “how the sausage was made” or how horses were first bent to our will, many modern horse lovers would probably cringe in horror, but whatever happened at that time and has happened since, we’ve ended up with a largely domestic species whose fortunes are closely tied with our own.

At the time that horses were first domesticated, what a human expected from life wouldn’t have been the same as what a modern-day human would consider reasonable to expect. It’s possible that humans and horses have a natural affinity for each other because we’re both highly social species who have a clear hierarchy within our ranks based on disposition, gender, size, breed and life experience.

We know from the science of behavioural psychology that humans automatically sort each other into a social hierarchy within the relatively small groups they’re ideally suited to live in, in a similar way to the way horses do. Both species either like or dislike someone straight away and will willingly follow the lead of an individual who is higher up the ladder than they are, in the case of humans, often for reasons they can’t fully explain. We also know that many humans consider their horses to be part of their close-knit social and family groups, in the same way that horses will accept the leadership or membership of a human they respect in their close-knit social groups.

Humans have the capacity for advanced verbal communication and what we like to think of as rational thought. But when you start digging into some of our decision-making processes with the benefit of what we know from behavioural psychology, it becomes clear that some human decisions are as illogical as those that a horse makes when it’s frightened by a plastic bag blowing in the wind (like a female human life being worth less than that of a male).

Horses have the capacity to communicate with each other and with us in non-verbal ways that make their meaning clear. Some of it is physical, like a twitching muzzle or a flattened ear and it’s possible for someone observant to distinguish a range of finely nuanced communications on a range of subjects from their preferences for certain foods, to their liking for the way a particular saddle feels on their back or the way someone approaches and pats them. They display obvious signs of sadness, playfulness and tenderness and a whole lot of other emotions common to humans.

Most humans who ride or keep horses for pleasure do so for reasons that they can only vaguely describe, often centring around concepts like happiness or a profound sense of peace or “sanity in an otherwise complicated world”. When we’re around horses, we’re calm. We know for example that horses can hear the sound of a heartbeat from about four feet away, and when resting in groups, synchronise their heart rate to the others around them, so that at the first sign of danger and the subsequent increase in the lookout’s heart rate – they can get moving quickly.

People who don’t know a lot about horses have a romanticised idea about what wonderful lives horses would lead if we weren’t around but the life of a horse or any other social species living in the wild isn’t all smooth sailing. They are at the mercy of the situation they find themselves in, and the least that any horse could wish for, is to be free from pain, hunger, thirst or the threat of physical violence or harm. The most they could hope for, is in addition to these basic needs being met, being in a position to belong to a stable social group, where they are able to form rich social bonds with other members of a group, having the opportunity to range or explore, or more simply put, have a purpose.

Sound familiar? It’s pretty much the same for humans.

What gives a horse purpose?

The primary purpose of both horses and humans is to stay alive. Being part of a group is the easiest way to improve the odds of doing that, so it’s hardwired into both our brains to look for others like us and hang onto them at all costs, even if they’re no great prize. Once reliable sources of food and water are taken care of and a lookout has been sorted to keep an eye out for baddies while they have a snooze, horses have the capacity and to varying degrees, the willingness to focus on some of the other things that they’re biologically equipped for. Social relationships, procreation, play, exploration and learning about their environment, ranging or seeing new places.

In the wild, horses travel over set tracks within a geographically bounded home range. They are physically active for most of their day and are capable of moving at great speeds and over great distances. As most people who know anything about horses will tell you, their movement isn’t just about getting from one place to another or away from danger. Horses move as an expression of exuberance, joy or playfulness and appear happy to share this movement with humans who they have a bond with and accept as a leader or take a protective role over, as many do with small children in much the same way that a pet dog does.

Many of the sports that have evolved over time to include horses, take advantage of the abilities and desires that horses naturally have. A high-level dressage horse for example, moves in much the same collected way as a horse showing off in the paddock at liberty does. To move this way requires that they use their bodies efficiently and in a way that strengthens their core postural muscles, which in the long term, can be a good, rather than bad thing for the horse. The sport of endurance asks a horse to travel long distances over interesting and varied terrain in partnership with their rider and be fit enough to pass a vet check at various stages to confirm that they aren’t stressed by the experience.

When training and horse sports are a collaborative effort and a willing partnership between a horse and a human, the abilities, feelings and disposition of the horse are taken into account and the horse is always treated with kindness, compassion and empathy. When we go to a dressage competition or other situation that is not as casual as our normal rides or lessons are, I’m conscious that my horses are doing me a courtesy by doing what I want to do for the day and are entitled to have a grumble about the bits they don’t like. There are other outings, like a visit to the beach or a short endurance ride that my mare in particular, loves every part of that it’s easy to see her enjoyment of. Something for me, something for her. It’s hard for me to see that situation as ethically compromising but if someone insisted on having their own way every time and got angry when their horses ventured an opinion, that’s not only unethical, I think that’s just being a jerk.

Not every horse is going to like being ridden or competed. Like people, some horses thrive on the energy and athleticism of competition whereas others are quite content with the occasional low-key outing with a trusted friend or no outings at all. So I don’t think a blanket rule can be applied to every horse, every owner and every situation about whether or not horses should be ridden or competed. But I do believe that when money and value get involved, moral boundaries are quickly and easily crossed and like the women of 2000 years ago, when horses have no voice to speak on their own behalf, it falls to those among us who do have a voice, to speak for them or initiate conversations that will result in new conventions and standards being set.

What they should be doing if not being ridden by us

It’s fair to say that an increasing number of horse owners think of their horses in the same way they think of their dogs and cats, as treasured members of the family rather than interchangeable units of livestock.

Once a process of basic education has been followed with a horse to translate the requests a human will make of it, into concepts it can understand, then that horse can understand “human”. If the process has been successful, this will establish the human in a position in the pecking order above the horse.

But this process isn’t a one-way street. If there is to be an effective two-way conversation, then it’s up to the human to familiarise itself with the way that horses offer feedback or make requests, so that they can understand what the horse is trying to tell them. This feedback can look like defiance or naughtiness, vices or other bad habits on behalf of the horse but that’s not what it is. It’s misunderstood communication or feedback from the horse, which the human either can’t understand or isn’t aware of.

Most good horsemen and women are people who are observant and understand how to assume a leadership role with the horse they’re trying to work with. Ideally, not to dominate or “show them who’s boss” but to demonstrate to the horse that they are someone who can be trusted to be a good leader and keep them safe. Someone who can help them make sense of confusing and possibly frightening situations and treat them with compassion.

I don’t believe that the next step forward in our shared relationship with horses is to take away their place in our lives by banning their involvement in horse sports or to campaign for horses to get a basic level of care, which I think is now assumed. The next step forward might be to help everyone who owns or is responsible for horses, understand that horses don’t just have value as it relates to their use as a riding or working horse. It could be learning about horse communication – not how we tell them what we want them to do, but how they tell us what they want or like – through the physical gestures they offer us as clues, through our interpretation of their gestures in the context of what we know to be true about horses and how we choose to act on it. Choosing different words than disobedience and naughtiness to describe their behaviour, like confusion, misunderstanding or fear.

As sentient beings, horses have no less of a legitimate claim to feelings, opinions, personalities than we do and the human point of view isn’t always the only valid one. We should be talking to our children about this at pony club and in riding lessons and making it possible for this to be the sentiment that underpins equestrian sport or the perfectly valid option of having horses as pets or companions, without the need for them to be useful to us in some way.


For a lot of man’s journey through the centuries, the horse has been there with him, walking beside him.

The horse of today is a far cry from the hardy creatures that we discovered in the Steppelands north of the Black Sea and we can’t go back to a time before we made them what they are today.

In the same way that we previously accepted as fact, that women didn’t deserve the same rights as men, brave people who felt strongly about how wrong that was, spoke up on behalf of all women, made their voices heard and insisted on change, despite enormous resistance and opposition.

We need more people to do that now. Not loudly and angrily, but calmly and constructively. For the good of a species that mankind owes such a great debt to, that it’s unlikely we could ever repay.