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Horseback riding is synonymous with romantic notions of wanderlust and freedom.  Of all the ways humans use animals, whether for food, entertainment, clothing or experiments, horse-riding often enjoys the least scrutiny from an animal welfare perspective. Pampered thoroughbreds, a little girl’s best friend, trusty steeds – horses are a symbol of power and status and have been used to advance civilisation for centuries.  Humans domesticated the horse about 5,500 years ago.  They were heavily involved in helping us build our cities, develop our agriculture systems and fight our wars.  No doubt that our use of these powerful and gentle creatures helped us get to where we are today, and helped us get there quicker.

Fast forward to the present day, and horses are still being utilised for a broad range of activities.  From sports and leisure to policing and crowd control, we continue to harness their gentle natures and powerful bodies. The difference today of course, is that we have the option to use horses.  The Industrial Revolution changed our reliance on these animals for laborious tasks, with the advent of powerful machinery and effective transportation systems.  Our relationship with horses is now one of unnecessary use and the pursuit of pleasure.

Many horse ‘owners’ will maintain that their horses are willing subjects – that they desire human interaction in the form of a dominant/submissive narrative, and that they are treated like a member of the family. There is no doubt that many of these horse-carers genuinely believe this, however from the moment a foal is born she enters into a world where she will be viewed only in terms of what humans can take from her. She is not loved for who she is, but for what she can give, when in reality she is an innocent being with a right to her own life.  Maybe she’s destined for the mounted police, maybe she’ll have the dexterity to make an impressive equestrian showpony, maybe she’ll be a fast thoroughbred and ‘earn her keep’ at the races for her human carers. Before any of that, she’ll have to be ‘broken in’.


Oddly, the terminology in this earliest stage of horsemanship is disarmingly honest.  Indeed, modern horse-training schools have recently gone to lengths to rename the crushing of an animal’s spirit by repackaging it as ‘Foundation Training’. Another reassuring ethical massage for their clients, the concerned horse-carers forever seeking the right way to do the wrong thing. However, as its traditional name suggests, the training of a horse from free-spirit to learned helplessness requires a mandatory breaking of free-will.  Horses, as prey animals, have an inborn fight or flight instinct that has to be adapted to human needs. Horses need to be taught to rely upon humans to determine when fear or flight is an appropriate response to new stimuli and not to react by instinct alone. Methods in Australia and throughout the world vary, and are perhaps beyond the scope of this website, however the same principle and objective is at the heart of all horse ‘training’. Let’s look at one example.

A popular training method of taming these gentle prey animals is ‘round pen training’, pioneered by Monty Roberts, a horse trainer given saviour-like status in many equestrian circles. Round pens create a training environment where it becomes easy for the trainer to get the horses attention. Their small diameters limit the horse’s ability to flee or evade the trainer, and their shape limits their activity options. This is where the horse learns to fear.

Of course, the ever-present artificial aids are a hallmark of this training. Even carrying a whip into this confined space is a very real threat to a prey animal and the source of great dread.  Roberts boasts of his ability to control his more easily broken horses by merely holding the whip in his hand in a neutral position (“The Man who Listens to Horses – Monty Roberts).  However, this isn’t a display of wonderful horsemanship, it is the threat of violence to one individual by another. All of these artificial aids at the very least threaten violence and are more often than not used violently and painfully to dominate the horse into displaying unnatural behaviours.  The sheer variety of torture instruments used by humans to control horses is overwhelming, we look at just a few of them here.

Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur
Source: We Animals

The Bit

A bit is a type of horse tack used extensively in equestrian activities. It is usually made of metal or a synthetic material and is placed in the mouth in an interdental region where there are no teeth. Supposedly, the purpose of this instrument is to assist a rider in communicating with the animal. It is held on a horse’s head by a bridle and has reins attached for use by a rider. With all of this horse tack built around the horses head, the rider has a much higher chance of dominating and controlling the horse.

A bit functions through the principle of negative reinforcement: the rider applies pressure through the reins to the bit in the horse’s mouth and the horse is reinforced or rewarded for the correct response by softer contact or a release or pressure, depending on the style of riding. This is in ‘an ideal situation’.

However, a hard-handed rider can make even the mildest bit excruciating. Given the amount of nerves in a horses’ mouth and their sensitive muzzle, the sensation of a chunk of metal lodged into their mouths would be beyond uncomfortable.  Include a rider who ‘knows what they are doing’, or a boisterous inexperienced beginner, the same result will transpire – the horse will experience pulling, jerking, tension. The grind of metal against molar.  A torturous device used expressly to dominate through causing pain and bullying into submission.


The spur is a device with a small spike or a spiked wheel that is worn on a rider’s heel and used for urging a horse forward.

Spurs are used in all disciplines of English and western riding (especially at professional level) and are touted as very useful training aids. How so?  They can very easily stab and gouge a horse’s skin and sides, creating raw open sores.

Respected horseman Harry Hall, a supporter of spurs, will even concur:

“ if they are used incorrectly or by an incompetent rider then they are certainly completely unacceptable. So, is it more of a question of rider rather than the actual spurs?”[i]

However, blaming the rider rather than the instrument is not a valid position to take, as riders are not working with machinery, they are controlling a thinking, feeling, living being.  The regulation of spur use is impossible, as these are legal, available ‘training aids’.  And, just like Monty Roberts’ whip, they don’t have to be making contact with a horse to produce fear and stress.  Their very presence around a horse is severely unsettling, particularly in a prey animal who is hardwired to sense danger and flee from it.


Blinkers are usually made of leather or plastic cups that are placed on either side of the eyes, attached to a bridle. Many racehorse trainers believe these keep horses focused on what is in front, encouraging them to pay attention to the race rather than other distractions, such as crowds. For this reason, they’re also an essential accessory for carriage horses.  Driving horses have a lower chance of being distracted or spooked when their vision is limited. When a horse has been robbed of so many of their other natural behaviours, the inclusion of blinkers to their torturous accessories would truly shut them down, forced into the helplessness that carriage drivers and jockeys would find so desirable. There can be no doubt that this device, designed to deprive an animal of their senses, is instrumental in breaking their spirit. A pathetic sight on a CBD street is a pair of carriage horses, tethered tightly to a pole, hooked up to a heavy carriage, unable to move forwards or backwards, chaos surrounding them, and not even able to see what is happening around them.

Credit: Melbourne Against Horse-Drawn Carriages

Tongue Ties

Now common in horseracing, the tongue tie is reportedly used to prevent noise and airway obstruction caused by the horse pulling back their tongue and pulling their soft palate backwards limiting oxygenation during exercise.[ii] The horses tongue is manually yanked firmly to the outside of their mouth and a band is forced around it and then under their jaw to hold the tongue as low and flat in the mouth as possible. This unnatural position would no doubt be uncomfortable for the horse at best, whilst also severely restricting blood flow. Studies have shown tongue ties can result in lacerations, bruising and swelling of the tongue, difficulty swallowing, and behaviour indicating stress. [iii] A healthy horse that is not over exhurted is capable of breathing on their own. Studies have failed to prove that tongue-ties are effective in preventing displacement yet, even if they were, a tongue tie is just another example of a cruel implement existing solely to assist in forcing a horse into extreme circumstances for the benefit no-one but the human.


A popular pastime with holidaymakers everywhere, trail-riding is most lay-person’s first introduction to live horse interaction. This activity can be undertaken by riders of all levels, and due to its leisurely reputation is a favourite amongst complete beginners. Accordingly, trail-riding horses have to be thoroughly ‘Broken In’. Trail-riding horses are often the ‘rejects’ of the more lucrative and ‘glamourous’ racing industry. A small percentage of thoroughbreds that aren’t fast enough for the racetrack are sometimes repurposed as intermediate-level trail horses (the ‘lucky’ ones). Trail riding horses tend to be quiet and able to deal with lots of distractions – not prone to spooking or bucking (both natural instincts). A free-spirited horse does not become a trail-riding horse without extensive and relentless efforts to separate his instincts and desires from his actions. Another thing to consider with trail riding and all other activities that require climbing on the horses back is the physiological pain this can inflict. Studies show discomfort leading to pain commences after only a few minutes through compromised circulation. [iv] Skeletal, muscle and tissue damage is almost always displayed. Trail riding is also a highly repetitive existence for horses. They are marched out in single file along a small selection of local routes for the length of a tour. Considering the distance covered by wild horses in their own environment, these constraints mount to mental torture for animals often admired for their association with freedom.


Dressage is a highly precise form of riding, usually performed as part of an exhibition or competition.  In these events, a series of predetermined movements have to be completed by horse and rider, requiring great concentration and discipline. The area the entire sequence covers is usually around 20x60metres. For a 550kg animal that values their freedom, dressage is the epitome of everything unnatural and undesirable. Riders show their proficiency by making their horses walk, trot and canter for frustratingly short distances.

A particularly torturous motif in dressage (and show jumping) is the desire for a horse to present with a ‘rollkur’. This is an alarmingly unnatural overbending of the neck, so that the chin is as close as possible to the horse’s chest. Even amongst dressage lovers, this practice is becoming more controversial. Forcing a horses head down into this unnatural position means that he, can only see his own feet, and is dependent entirely on the rider for balance. This limited vision, along with forced precision and unnatural stretching of the neck muscles, equates to physical and psychological torture.

A final insult: a horse shows his inferiority to another horse by lowering his head. The lower the head the more submission. It also works the other way around; if you lower the head of the horse they feel inferior, robbing them of their pride. Dressage breaks down a horse piece by piece, and as they perform this sinister dance, a shell of their original selves remains.

A horse forced into a ‘rollkur’


“Horses love to race”; a statement often made by a punter or ‘owner’ to justify their lust for this ‘sport’.  Watching wild horses gallop across the landscape is a breathtaking sight, and anyone lucky enough to witness this can plainly see that these horses love to run together.  However, there is a world of difference between a horse running for pleasure using their own free will and being forced to run around a track with an aggressive rider on their back, vying for first place by whatever means necessary – including whipping.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have shown that after being forced to race where they are pushed beyond their limits, 56 per cent of horses have blood in their windpipe, and 90 per cent have blood deeper in their lungs. ‘Over-whipping’ is a common breach of racing rules with miniscule fines occasionally result. So, there is an acceptable industry standard of the number of times a grown adult can beat up on a horse whilst people cheer him or her on.

Off-track and out of sight from the public, the day to day life of a racehorse is a far cry from the pampered, cherished, meticulous care the racing industry would have us believe. In order to get a horse onto the track with a fighting chance at winning, trainers will resort to unethical and illegal activities.

Credit: Mathew Schwartz


On the day of racing, horses are to be clear of any substances deemed prohibited – though they may be used in training.  The fact that hundreds of different drugs are manufactured on a yearly basis, detection is made extremely difficult. However the use of drugs in racehorses is extremely common. Trainers are desperate to give their horse an edge in a fiercely competitive ‘sport’, with no regard to welfare of the horse they are drugging to line their own pockets.

A horse can be given extra temporary energy using stimulants, or pain can be masked via an analgesic. Other drugs can control pulmonary bleeding, an important condition to prevent and manage. The sight of a racehorse bleeding from the nose is an extremely bad look for the industry. Drugging up a horse is a small price to pay to avoid a three-month ban (or life if it occurs twice) in Australia.

Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur
Source: We Animals

Confined Living

It’s tempting to think that these magnificent animals get free reign of the fields and meadows and paddocks in their down-time, but this simply isn’t the case. Most punters don’t give a second thought to what’s happening behind the scenes: beautiful, strong, ‘healthy’ horses are presented on race day and the assumption is they live that glamourous, pampered life all year where they are centre of attention and fastidiously cared for.

In reality, most racehorses are kept for up to 22 hours a day in a stall about the size of a standard bedroom. [v]

For an animal designed to roam, run and explore, evade predators and cover large distances, this stabling is another form of mental and physical torture. Locked up, forgotten about, and excessively lonely – the only aspect of love their trainers have is for the money the horse can potentially make.

Unable to graze. Unable to socialise. Not free to move. This mental torture manifests itself in abnormal behaviour. Like any animal, human or otherwise, confinement leads to symptoms of boredom, stress and anxiety such as wood chewing, walking back and forth, swaying to and fro.

Confinement also leads to physical symptoms in a horse, such is their sensitivity.

Credit: Ian Schneider

Stomach Ulcers

Trainers favour high protein intermittent feeding as it is thought to maximise the horses’ performance, but this diet is a disaster for the horse.  Confining the horse used for racing to a stable denies them access to graze.  Constant grazing of fibrous food is essential in helping slow the production of stomach acid and neutralise conditions in the stomach. When a horse is confined to a small stable and fed to a timetable, there is no way to neutralise the acid that will damage the stomach lining. This leads to painful stomach ulcers.

A common behind the scenes at the racetrack

Nanny Mares

A dirty secret horse racing will go to great lengths to conceal is the practice of ‘Nanny’ mares.  A ‘Nanny’ mare is kept pregnant for her milk supply as insurance against a prize broodmare dying while giving birth.  A surrogate mother is assured for the thoroughbred foal in the shape of this ‘nanny’ mare, and as she steps in to raise the thoroughbred foal, her own baby is treated as wastage and killed.

Death Toll & Wastage

The statistics on horse racing are dire and leave little room for debate on whether or not it is a cruel activity.  In Australia, horse calendar year 2016-17 alone, 137 horses died on track at race day. These are just the deaths that are reported from on track injuries and cardiac arrest – many more happen in trials and trackwork and many die away from the track, hours or days after injuries have occurred, where there is currently no requirement to record the death in official stewards reports. Yet still, this is a tiny proportion of the horses that die in this ‘sport’. It is estimated that approximately 13,000 horses exit the industry every year, most of them ‘failed’. Knackeries and slaughterhouses exist throughout Australia killing and cutting up the bodies of these apparently prized individuals to become pet food or to be shipped overseas for human consumption. This is where failed, and even once successful, horses used by the racing industry go to retire.

Slaughtered for human consumption, Australia
Credit: Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses

Jumps Racing

Hardly requiring an explanation, even some lovers of ‘regular horse racing’ are appalled by the brutality of making a 550kg animal galloping at speed jump at a height with a rider on their back. Indeed, jumps racing is said to be 20 times more dangerous than any other type of horse racing. It’s important to remember that, by supporting any type of horse racing, you’re also propping up the jumps racing industry, where just like flat racing horses lives are valued at how much money they can be forced to make for their exploiters.

It is obvious that any kind of horse racing does not have the horses’ best interests at heart.  This is a multi-billion-dollar worldwide industry reliant on the public remaining in the dark. So far, they have enjoyed great success pitching the ‘horses love to race’ lie, but in an era where ignorance is often a choice and more people are waking up to the evils of this industry, they are clearly on borrowed time.

Horses are complex, sensitive, powerful, soulful creatures we are lucky enough to share our world with.  Even our highly civilised, 21st century sensibilities cannot fail to notice that, of all the species in the animal kingdom, there are few who so openly and affirmatively bask in and relish their freedom in a way we can easily interpret.  It’s so very obvious to anyone with eyes to see.  It is time we stop interfering with these gentle beings and let them live the way nature intended, the way every instinct in their bodies commands, and every desire in their hearts wish.

Oakbank Jumps Races
Credit: Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses




Author: Catherine Wright
Occupation: Project Administrator
Animal Rights Activist




[iv] Stormy May in ‘The Path of the Horse’


Cover image by Erin Dolson on Unsplash

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