Is horse riding cruel? Can vegans ride horses? The ethics of horse riding remains an extremely controversial and divisive topic. Dive deep into the debate and learn why the question of whether riding hurts horses distracts from the more important ethical issues of horse use.
Table Of Contents
- The More Important Question: Are Horses Meant to Be Ridden?
- Common Arguments in Defense of Horse Riding
- Common Arguments Against Horse Riding
- The Incremental Negotiation of "Acceptable" Exploitation
- Is Horse Riding Vegan?
- In Closing…
Horse riding is not only physically and emotionally harmful to horses but—more importantly—it is a form of exploitation. So yes, horse riding is cruel, but the physical harm of riding is far from the only ethical concern.
While this article does address the physical harm of riding and horse tack, it urges riders to question the presumption that horses are ours to use in the first place. Read more below (or watch the video above) for arguments for and against horse riding, the ongoing debates between horse riding schools and methods, and a deeper exploration of the ethics of horse use.
Horse riding is definitively not vegan. Veganism opposes any exploitation of sentient beings, and horseback riding is an exploitative act. It is only possible under unequal power dynamics and constraints. Not only are horses often subjected to and controlled by the use of tack like saddles, bits, bridles, and whips, but—more importantly—they are kept in a state of learned helplessness through the exploitation of domestication.
While riders profess to—and very likely do—love horses, this article challenges them to examine the nature of that relationship, and explore the possibility of loving horses truly unconditionally. Read more below (or watch the video above) for a deeper exploration of horse use through the lens of ethical veganism.
Of all of the controversial topics I’ve covered, nothing has generated as much passionate feedback as questioning the ethics of horseback riding. In the years since, I’ve realized that my original video and article focused heavily on the physical harm of riding—neglecting to delve into the broader ethical concerns surrounding the use of horses.
Additionally, I’ve heard from many horse riders in the intervening years and wanted to respond to their feedback more thoroughly. So, I decided to revisit this “powder keg” of a topic more comprehensively and in much greater depth.
Before we discuss whether horse riding is cruel, I want you to think about another question entirely: are horses meant to be ridden?
The question of whether horse riding is cruel tends to result in heated debate over which methods or schools of riding are best, with riders insisting that horse riding is not harmful if done “correctly.”
I have received lengthy comments detailing how any physical or emotional harm caused by riding horses is due to inexperienced riders, poor use of equipment, or any other number of factors.
But all of this debate over how to ride horses “properly” presupposes that there is an acceptable way to use another being for our own purposes. Even the very question of whether horse riding is cruel risks implying that the only problem with riding horses is whether they suffer.
The foundational ethical issue with horseback riding isn’t whether it hurts horses—it’s the presumption that they are ours to use in the first place. That horses are meant to be ridden.
We’ll explore this further throughout this article but I wanted to plant this seed before we get too lost in the weeds
Let’s start by addressing head-on four common arguments in defense of riding horses:
- Riding provides good (and necessary) exercise for horses
- Riding provides an enriched environment and stimulation for horses
- Horses like to be ridden
- Riding creates an emotional bond between horse and rider
What’s fascinating—and rather telling—about these arguments is that they all focus on how riding benefits horses. I point this out because the nature of how we defend our actions can reveal a great deal about our underlying—and even subconscious—insecurities about those actions.
By stressing how good riding is for horses, proponents of riding inadvertently expose their anxiety about its potential harms. Such arguments also serve to close off any further debate—if horses like being ridden, what’s the problem?
I want to note that, in addition to answering these arguments below, we’ll be revisiting them in more detail throughout the section covering arguments against horse riding.
The most basic argument in defense of riding horses is that horses need exercise. This also comes with the most basic refutation: so do dogs, cats, and human children—yet we’ve somehow found a way to provide such necessary physical activity without mounting any of them.
Yes, horses—like all animals—need exercise. And if riding them is the only way they are allowed to receive that exercise, then yes—it’s more beneficial than being stuck in a stall all day every day.
But the choice of being ridden or receiving no exercise at all is a human-created false dichotomy.
The reason horses even need humans to provide them with exercise is that we have confined them in the first place.
A second argument is that riding provides horses with an enriched environment and stimulation. As with exercise, these are valid needs of any living being—and fully achievable without being mounted by a human.
Again, if horses weren’t deprived of enrichment and stimulation by humans in the first place, they wouldn’t need to be given enrichment and stimulation by humans.
The assertion that horses enjoy being ridden comes in many forms, but almost 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.
Horse riding advocates describe how excited their horses are when they see it’s time to go for a ride, listing behavioral signs of enjoyment versus those indicating distress.
Rather than debate the meaning of equine body language, let’s assume—for a moment—that a horse does show excitement about being ridden. This excitement has to be viewed within the context of the limitations we’ve placed upon the horse.
What else do they have to look forward to? When your options are staying in a stall or getting to go outside—albeit while being ridden—which would you choose?
Adapting to the limits of confinement is a survival mechanism in all animals—humans included.
Think of how imprisoned people find ingenious ways to fulfill the need for social and communal interaction, intellectual stimulation, and physical activity. They may very well come to enjoy any time they have outside their cell and excitedly anticipate things that, to non-imprisoned people, seem trivial or even unappealing. But within the limited framework of confinement, they adapt to stay sane.
“Most people have no idea that the animals they are spending time with are in an absolute state of learned helplessness, of conditioning, that doesn’t even allow you to experience their true nature. What you are experiencing is like this empty shell version…of the animal in front of you.”— Ren Hurst, author/mentor & former horse trainer/rider
from our interview
Even if we could accurately determine consent from other species, true consent cannot be freely given under unequal power dynamics and constraints.
This leads us to what I think may be the most painful defense for riders to confront: the love they feel for their horses, and the deep emotional bond formed through riding.
To those of you who ride horses: I do believe that you love them. I do believe that you feel a deep emotional connection to them.
And I believe that the depth of that love is precisely what makes it so profoundly painful to question the true nature of your relationship with them.
I also understand the resistance to having that bond questioned by me—someone with no background in horse riding.
So, I’ll again defer to Ren Hurst, who, in her book Riding on the Power of Others: A Horsewoman’s Path to Unconditional Love, relays with brutal honesty and unflinching self-examination the progressive realization that what she believed to be love for horses was actually—for her—a love for power and control:
“You have to almost experience a truly free horse to walk away from [riding]…otherwise, your perception of what horses are and how they behave is really skewed. We really don’t know the essence of what love really means.
This is a being you have placed in your control and in your care, and then you call that “love.” I mean, there’s nothing “loving” about using someone for your own personal benefit. That’s not a loving relationship, and it’s not an equal relationship.”— Ren Hurst, author/mentor & former horse trainer/rider
from our interview
Riding horses involves using non-human animals for entertainment, emotional fulfillment—even love. But using someone for love is still using someone.
Now that we’ve touched on some of the principal defenses for riding horses, let’s explore the main arguments against horse riding. I’ll be honest: the most common arguments against horseback riding—which I myself focused upon in my original video and article on this topic—all center on the physical harm riding inflicts upon horses.
Yes, it’s important to address the physical consequences horses endure from being ridden. However, focusing exclusively on their physical suffering as the reason to stop riding horses misses the greater ethical issues entirely.
Instead of questioning our use of horses in the first place, we end up nitpicking the appropriate terms of their exploitation: arguing about the best and worst methods of riding, the proper and improper use of equipment, et cetera.
It is the very same trap of all animal welfarism, like humane, free-range, and cage-free labels. Our right to use these beings is seen as a foregone conclusion—the only thing we question is the “acceptable” ways in which we can use them.
With that caveat stated, let’s look at the physical impact of horseback riding on horses before further exploring the vegan animal rights perspective.
The short answer is yes, horse riding does hurt horses. The exact nature and degree of the harm, the precise causality, and proposed methods by which such harm may be mitigated is a long-standing contentious debate that shows no signs of resolution.
A major problem with the scientific and medical literature is that it is conducted through the lens of minimizing the harm of horse use in order to prolong that use. It is also framed within the unquestioned constraints we’ve placed upon horses.
For example, many studies conclude that horses benefit from entering training at a younger age, which is used to justify starting them early in horse racing. One recent research review’s conclusion stated that “it has been shown in numerous studies that confinement and the subsequent lack of loading, lead to weaker tissues and potential loss of function of bone, articular cartilage, and tendons and that exercise during growth aids in the longevity of animal health and performance.”2
What this essentially means is that exercising horses is better than confining them to stalls. Of course movement is better than confinement. But once again—movement and exercise can happen without mounting and without rigorous training for competition.
Additionally, if we weren’t forcing these horses into competition in the first place, there would be no need to try and determine the “right way” and “right time” to start them in training.
Before we get into more detail on whether riding hurts horses, I want to again urge you to take a step back and think about another question entirely: if so much has to be done “correctly” to minimize the harm of riding horses, and no one can actually agree on what that “correct” formula is, and riding horses is entirely unnecessary in the first place—why are we still so insistent on doing this to them?
For the horse racing industry, the answer is clear: money. But for the individual rider—for the horse lover—stop to question why you feel you need to ride. The majority of blog posts and informal articles I came across discussing whether riding hurts horses were written by riders. People who obviously have concern that their actions are adversely impacting the beings they love.
Yet those posts went on to catalog—sometimes in extensive detail—how, exactly, to make the riding experience as enjoyable as possible for your horse. How to minimize injury and distress.
Some echo the journey of Ren Hurst, progressively using less and less horse tack and adopting more gentle methods, all in an effort to find a justifiable way to still use horses. So, let’s follow this path and start with the harm of horse tack.
It’s worth noting that most horse tack is made from the skin of other non-human animals, further compounding the exploitation. I cover the leather industry in depth in my video and article “Is Leather a Byproduct of the Meat Industry?“
In addition to general wear and chafing, saddles run the risk of causing vascular occlusion—meaning the restriction of blood flow—which can, if prolonged, lead to “necrosis of the under-lying tissues”3 —meaning the horse’s skin and muscles die.
Riding bareback (without a saddle) isn’t the answer, as it may actually increase the risk of injury by putting more concentrated pressure on a horse’s back than with a saddle.4 To avoid severe consequences such as necrosis, much industry, and scientific research goes into designing and educating riders about “proper” saddle fit and use.
The option of just not riding horses at all never even enters the discussion.
I have a video and article covering bits, so I’ll keep this brief. Bits cause pain and damage a horse’s complex cranial nerves, as well as their teeth, tongue, and palate.5 Facial nerves are very close to the skin and thus extremely sensitive.
Bits provide a perfect example of the incremental negotiation of acceptable exploitation that occurs when viewing a horse’s pain as the only problem. Rather than question the domination and control of another being, more and more riders adopt and advocate for bitless bridles.
Then, when research hints that perhaps even bitless bridles cause pain,6 there’s another school or device or approach ready to take its place.
Riding advocates emphasize that whips and crops should not be used as punishment—only as encouragement—the primary benefit being “additional control over your horse.”7 As with all horse tack, there is unending debate over their “proper” use, with much focus given to the potential physical and emotional harm of misuse.
Let’s pause for a moment to consider that we’re now debating the proper way to whip a being we love.
The most widespread controversy about whips is their use in the horse racing industry, which I’ve covered in a dedicated video and article.
While the way whips are used within horse racing differs from how they’re used in non-competitive riding, recent research into horse pain perception from whips is applicable to the larger issues we’ve been exploring.
There’s a long-standing misconception that horses have “thicker skin” than humans, and thus, whips don’t hurt them. A 2020 study comparing the capacity of horse and human skin to detect pain found this not to be the case:
“The results revealed no significant difference between humans and horses in either the concentration of nerve endings in the outer pain-detecting layer of skin (epidermis) or in the thickness of this layer… The collagen layer (dermis) of skin which is not involved in pain detection was significantly thinner in humans than in horses.
These findings show that, although horse skin is thicker overall than human skin, the part of the skin that is thicker does not insulate them from pain that is generated during a whip strike, and that humans and horses have the equivalent basic anatomic structures to detect pain in the skin.”8— Lydia Tong et al., “A Comparative Neuro-Histological Assessment of Gluteal Skin Thickness and Cutaneous Nociceptor Distribution in Horses and Humans” (emphasis added)
Six years before this study, one of the authors, Paul McGreevy decided to whip himself while taking thermographic imaging, saying:
“My view is that – because there is no evidence to the contrary – we must assume that, just as I felt pain and distress from the impact of the padded whip, similar whipping in a horse would also cause pain and distress.”9— Paul McGreevy, “Whips Hurt Horses – If My Leg’s Anything to Go By”
While it’s validating to now have the scientific verification, I wanted to highlight McGreevy’s point: why not assume that other sentient beings feel pain as we do, rather than continue to harm them unless we’ve proven to ourselves that it is harm?
Now that we’ve addressed horse tack, what about the act of riding itself? There is an astounding lack of consensus and ongoing controversy regarding horse skeletal maturation and growth plate closure rates,10 diagnosis and treatment of injuries, and the relationship of riding and training practices to injury rates.
Even a veterinary manual explaining “the most common cause of back soreness in the horse” is soft-tissue damage to the muscles and supraspinous ligament in a horse’s back, which “are strained while the horse is being ridden” is sure to point out that “there is considerable controversy over the diagnosis and treatment of back problems in horses.”11
It’s acknowledged that “[a]cross all equestrian disciplines, the single largest reason for wastage”—also euphemistically referred to as “loss of horses”—”is musculoskeletal injury,”12 Yet horse skeletal maturation rates and damage from riding remain particularly contentious.
Many studies and sources declare horses “skeletally mature” at 2–3 years of age based either on the growth plates closing in their legs, or their having reached their full height and weight.13
None of these factors speak to the maturity of their axial skeleton, which includes their vertebral column—y’know, the part you sit on—nor parts of the pubis that don’t fuse until 4.5–5 years of age14, long after they’re already being ridden.
I spent days delving into horse skeletal development, and I’ve included more on my research process and findings within the supplemental section below.
But honestly, those hundred or so hours I spent only highlighted the utter insanity of how much time, energy, and effort we humans put into justifying our use of other animals.
In the end, the industry, scientific, medical, and even lay-rider literature doesn’t really refute the harm of riding—it just strives to determine the best way to reduce that harm and prolong the use of horses.
Horse growth plate closure rates and overall skeletal development and maturation are still being debated, with ongoing controversy over how early to “start” horses. There is a saying that a horse is ready to ride when their “knees close,” referring to waiting to ride horses until the growth plates in their limbs have closed.
As I mentioned in the previous section, studies on growth plate closure seem to focus exclusively on the appendicular skeleton (horses’ limbs), which typically close by 2–3 years of age.15 However, as plates close from the ground up, those latest to close are in the axial skeleton (skull, vertebral column, sternum, and ribs).16
I spent days searching for peer-reviewed data on growth plate closure and skeletal maturation of a horse’s axial skeleton, only to hit wall after wall. What I came across time and again was a widely-circulated document by Dr. Deb Bennett, who has a PhD in Vertebrate Paleontology.17 (I actually cited this very paper in my original video and article.)
Dr. Bennet argues that the last growth plates to fuse are in the vertebral column, stating this does not occur until the horse is at least five and a half years old. While Dr. Bennett cites select sources for her schedule of growth plate fusion (including her own research), the specific sources for each value in the table are not clear.18
I was able to finally chase down the 5th edition of The Anatomy of the Domestic Animals (1975)—first published in 191019—which states that “the epiphyseal parts [of the pubis] fuse with the main mass at four and a half to five years of age,”20 a finding made as early as 1897 (see second highlight in Table 1).21
Additionally, within the text from 1897, a table of welding times of the epiphyses of horses appears to list the anterior physis of the vertebral body (within the spine) as fusing between 4–5 years of age (see first highlight in Table 1).22 I was also able to verify that the proximal end of the humerus fuses as late as 3.5 years of age.23
As I spent hours looking for growth-plate closure rates and finding countless regurgitations of Dr. Bennett’s schedule, I kept struggling with the question: does this matter?
Dr. Bennett’s paper, if fully relied upon, could be used as compelling reasoning for why riding horses under the age of five or six could cause skeletal damage. Yet Dr. Bennett’s primary goal in this paper is not to decry horse riding, but rather to advocate for the appropriate age at which to commence riding.
I decided that affording a significant portion of my video and article to getting lost in so much minutia would essentially contribute to the very problem I’m attempting to highlight: that this focus on and debate about the degree and nature of physical harm distracts from the real ethical issue at hand—the exploitation of sentient beings for our own purposes.
The warring approaches to riding, endless studies on training practices, and progressive bargaining of using less and less tack are all manifestations of the same incremental negotiation of exploitation we perform with all non-human animals.
We barter and bargain and give ourselves happy-sounding labels, doing anything we can to keep using animals—but feel good about it.
Within the horse world, a poignant example of this mentality is the United States horse racing industry patting itself on the back for a 23.5% decrease in fatalities over a decade of voluntary data collection by The Jockey Club.24
The mentality is that: of course there are going to be fatalities. But, as The Jockey Club’s senior counsel said, the fact that slightly fewer horses died of fatal injuries while racing “indicates that the Thoroughbred industry’s commitment to equine safety is paying dividends.”25
Not only do we fail to question what we’re doing to these beings, but we actually congratulate ourselves for being the heroes in the disasters of our own creation. We swoop in to make their abbreviated lives slightly less miserable—lives that we’ve made abbreviated and miserable in the first place.
By this point, you can probably guess the answer to whether horse riding is vegan. The question “is horse riding vegan” is quite different from the question “is horse riding cruel.” Veganism and animal rights oppose any exploitation of sentient beings
It’s evident that horses do not need to be ridden. When a horse’s basic needs are met without being ridden, horseback riding solely benefits the rider. Whether that benefit is financial gain, entertainment, emotional fulfillment, or even a presumed expression of love—it is exploitation.
There is no way to take advantage of someone’s captive dependency without exploiting them.
Underlying all of the debates over the “proper” way to train and ride horses is not only the tacit acknowledgment that some degree of harm is acceptable but also the deeply entrenched and unquestioned presumption that horses are ours to use.
Confronting the exploitation of horse use is—I’m sure—profoundly painful.
It’s likely as traumatic as confronting what we do to animals in the food industry—and elicits just as strong defenses and justifications, even from vegans who continue to ride horses.
I again will encourage those of you who ride horses to ask yourself: why? Why do you insist on doing this to them? As much as I’m sure you love them, is this how you express love for any other being in your life?
This isn’t about shame—it’s about learning to love horses truly unconditionally. Unconditional love means allowing them to be their full selves—outside of the constraints of who we need them to be.
I’ll be honest—revisiting the ethics of horse riding has been an exhausting, challenging, and somewhat maddening experience. My hope is that this video and article will reach those of you who are still riding—and that you’ll find a way to work through your defenses and take an honest look at your relationship with horses.
I highly recommend watching my interview with Ren Hurst—hearing from someone who has been where you are is no doubt more powerful than anything I can say.
Please share this video and article with others who ride. And, as much as I joked about “passionate feedback,” I do want to hear from you! What are your thoughts on the ethics of horse riding? Let me know in the comments!
To support educational content like this, please consider making a donation. Now go live vegan, and I’ll see you soon.
— Emily Moran Barwick
Editor’s notes (from Emily): This article (along with the first video) was originally published September 24, 2014. As I’ve stated within this new article and video, I focused primarily upon the physical harm of riding in my first post. I am moved that my original video and article reached so many people. I am also grateful that I’ve now been able to re-address this issue in much greater depth and with a more comprehensive ethical perspective. I have still included my original video below.
I would also like to provide an explanatory note on the structure and wording of the subheadings on this article. You may notice that many are phrased as questions rather than statements. (For example, “Do Horses Like to Be Ridden?” rather than “Horses Like to Be Ridden” under the section “Common Arguments in Defense of Horse Riding.”) This is for the sake of “searchability”—by phrasing subheadings in the question format, people searching for answers online are more likely to find this article. While I’m not a fan on this awkward presentation, accessibility of this information is of great import. Having an ethical veganism and animal-rights-based answer amongst the search results for horse riding ethics is worth a little awkwardness.
Original video on horse riding
This is my original video on this topic, which, as I’ve stated, focused primarily upon the physical harm of riding. Additionally, some of the sources I used in this videos are not ones I would rely upon now (please see the section “A Note on Researching the Skeletal Maturation & Growth Plate Closure in Horses” above for a further discussion).