What’s the vegan stance on horseback riding? A complex subject with many facets, horse riding is a controversial topic within the animal rights community. What’s the bottom line on riding horses: cruelty or companionship?
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What’s the vegan stance on horseback riding? Is riding horses cruel? This is quite the controversial topic and one I will be covering in an ongoing Horse Riding Ethics Series.
For this initial look into horseback riding, I’m going to first address the question of whether riding horse is vegan before addressing whether it is cruel.
As I said in my video about wool, veganism—in general—is about opposing the use of animals for our own personal gains in any form whatsoever. If we look at horseback riding, it’s evident that horses do not need to be ridden. They seem to do very well for themselves in the wild without one of us atop them. Horseback riding solely benefits the rider and is thus a form of using animals for entertainment.
This is not a popular stance, and there are several arguments as to how riding benefits the horse; one being that domesticated horses need the exercise. The most simple response to this is that domesticated dogs also need exercise, yet owners are somewhat able to provide this without mounting them.
A second argument is that riding provides horses with an enriched environment. Again, this can as easily be achieved without someone atop them by walking a horse from the ground.
A third argument is one that comes in many forms but always starts with “but my horse loves…” and insert: being ridden, going to shows, wearing a bridle, having a bit, running the barrels, and what have you.
Perhaps there is a horse out there who genuinely loves to be ridden—it is still important to understand the impact of riding on a horse’s body. What I’m going to cover is a cursory look into the impact of horseback riding on horses. I have links to additional resources a the foot of this post and I urge you to reference those studies to delve deeper into his topic.
Let’s start with skeletal structure. There is a saying that a horse is ready to ride when their “knees close.” This refers to waiting until the growth plates just above the knee convert from cartilage to bone. Dr. Deb Bennet in her article, Time and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses, states, “what people often don’t realize is that there is a “growth plate” on either end of every bone behind the skull, and in the case of some bones (like the pelvis or vertebrae, which have many ‘corners’) there are multiple growth plates.”1 She goes on to detail the exact schedule of growth plate conversion to bone in horses. (Figure 1)
While many people start riding their horses around age 2 (in horse racing) and 3 (in leisure riding), Dr. Bennet’s detailed schedule shows that the last plates to fuse are in the vertebral column, which does not occur until the horse is at least five and a half years old, with taller horses and males taking even longer.
According to Practical Anatomy and Propaedeutic of the Horse,2 the length of time for complete growth of the epiphyseal plates (cartilage) in the body of the lumbar vertebrae of thoroughbred horses, for example, is not until they are (on average) between 6 and 9 years old.3
The basic takeaway of this is that it’s incredibly easy to damage a horses back and displace his or her vertebral growth plates, causing pain and lasting injury.
Aside from the issue of growth plate fusion, riding a horse at any age causes skeletal damage as well as muscle and tissue. Alexander Nevzorov of Nevzorov Haute Ecole states:
A horse’s back is not a seat, not a place for a human butt, not a piece of “meat,” not some sort of ‘terra firma’. It is a very complex and tender anatomical structure with extraordinary functions… Besides the obvious biomechanical function, the back has another very important function. The spinal cord’s work is to guarantee that the responses from the entire nervous system can communicate the senses of taste, smell, vision, hearing, and vestibular function to the brain, not to get lost in too much detail. on this especially vulnerable, sensitive organ, onto the medulla spinalis, the brain of the back, sits a rider.4— Alexander Nevzorov, “Tractate on a School Mount. Princepc Cuaesitum. Frigusculum.”
In a 2007 study by Matilda Homer and colleagues, out of the 295 horses who were considered physically sound upon initial examination, 91.5% were diagnosed with some kind of alteration on the spinal processes after x-ray. Almost always, the spinal processes of the caudal saddle position were affected. The most frequent results were diminished internal spaces of spinal processes including changes of the bone structure of the spinal processes.5
The spinal damage from weight alone is compounded by the use of saddles, harnesses, bits, and whips. Saddles restrict blood flow to the arterial capillary bed causing tissue damage, as well as general wear and chafing.6 But nothing is quite as cruel as the use of bits and whips, which I’m only going to give a cursory nod to in this post.
Bits cause pain and damage to a horse’s complex cranial nerves as well as their teeth, tongue and palate.7 Facial nerves are extremely close to the skin and thus extremely sensitive. It is essential to understand that there is absolutely no way to use a bit without the horse feeling pain.8 For more in-depth information on bits, please see my video and article Horse Riding Cruelty: Effects of the Bit.
In regards to whips, for the scope of this post, I’ll just say this: it’s a whip! Would you whip your dog? Yes, a horse is larger than a dog, and—many argue—has thick skin, but where the whips land—around the area of the muscle vastus lateralis—the thickness rarely exceeds 2 millimeters, and the skin dermis and epidermis is supplied with a large amount of nerves. For more in-depth information on whips, please see my video and article Horse Racing Exposed: From Cradle to Grave.
And if you find it hard to take my word given my lack of experience with horses, please see this interview with Ren Hurst, about her journey away from riding after trading and training horses professionally.
— Emily Moran Barwick