Can Research Save the Reputation of Equestrian Sports? - The Horse Owner's Resource

Can Research Save the Reputation of Equestrian Sports?

Bareback dressage and PhDs make a case in the court of public opinion
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Credit: Image by Judy Sharrock, Creative Commons license Have you hugged your horse today? Of course you have, but for many professional equestrians, a public hug is almost obligatory. Everyone wants to be seen as having a close personal relationship with his or her horse. Here's Charlotte Dujardin, reigning Olympic, world, and European champion, who always has plenty of reasons to be hugging Valegro, both on camera and off. But horse sports need more than public hugs to show that the horse is respected and that riders and trainers are responsive to a sport horse's mental as well as physical needs. What role will scientific research play in validating--or condemning--the way current horse competitions use horses?

Credit: Image by Judy Sharrock, Creative Commons license Have you hugged your horse today? Of course you have, but for many professional equestrians, a public hug is almost obligatory. Everyone wants to be seen as having a close personal relationship with his or her horse. Here's Charlotte Dujardin, reigning Olympic, world, and European champion, who always has plenty of reasons to be hugging Valegro, both on camera and off. But horse sports need more than public hugs to show that the horse is respected and that riders and trainers are responsive to a sport horse's mental as well as physical needs. What role will scientific research play in validating--or condemning--the way current horse competitions use horses?

A funny thing happened this weekend and no one was watching. Between the FEI European Eventing Championships in Scotland and Scott Brash winning the Rolex Grand Slam of Eventing on Hello Sanctos at Spruce Meadows in Canada, dressage wasn’t on the radar.

But at the Gut Ising Chiemsee Festival in Bavaria, one international dressage rider made a statement about contemporary dressage, without saying a word.

At the lakeside event, Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, a member of the Germany’s bronze-medal winning team at the FEI European Dressage Championships in Aachen last month, rode an exhibition of her freestyle on her stallion Unee BB. It might be that she’ll be applauded more for what she did on the shores of Lake Chiemsee than for her 80 percent-plus freestyle score in the championships.

The young star chose to ride her freestyle without a saddle and without a double bridle. Seated on her saddle pad, she guided the Dutch Warmblood through pirouettes, passage and piaffe with only a snaffle bit. Jessica made a case for a brighter side to dressage than what is so often painted in social media.

The ride was taped and can be found posted by several sources on YouTube. 

Jessica has not made any claim for acting on behalf of anyone other than herself. She was just a single rider on a single horse, demonstrating what the two of them can do. "Don't make assumptions about dressage," her simple performance seemed to say. "Or about me."

What prompted her pared-down performance? Jessica surely reads the news. After the FEI European Championships ended in Aachen, the drama kept going. The German branch of the animal rights group PETA filed animal cruelty charges in local courts against both Jessica's teammate Matthias-Alexander Rath, rider of (now-retired) dressage superstar Totilas, and Dutch rider Edward Gal, who was stopped during his dressage test when blood was seen on his horse’s mouth.

In addition, PETA is calling for a ban on the sport of dressage.

"It is totally unacceptable (to abuse) horses as (if they are) sports equipment," said Dr. Edmund Haferbeck, Head of Science and Law Department at PETA Germany eV. "The greed for winning tournaments at all costs forces the riders to no longer regard their horses as sentient beings. When the animals no longer (deliver) the desired results, they are often disposed of, like a commodity."

The fine footing dust at Aachen hadn't even settled when photos appeared on the Epona.tv website of Danish dressage star Andreas Helgstrand in the warmup ring at the Falsterbo event in July. Photo after photo showed Helgstrand's horse Tørveslettens Stamina in contorted positions. Were these images the result of superfast motor drives on a high-tech camera or was the rider really deliberately sustaining manipulation of his horse through the leverage offered him via his expertise with the double bridle? 

Comments in Helgstrand's defense challenged the use of still photos to prove sustained manipulation and called for an end to witch hunting, but both the FEI and Danish Equestrian Federation promised to investigate further. Is this a matter of rider privilege, lack of warmup ring steward action, or could it be, as Epona TV suggests, the dark side of a piece of tack worn by virtually every advanced level dressage horse?

Fast forward: a new research paper was published last week that may prove the old notion that "the more we know, the more we know we don't know". In fact, the authors as much as said that.

Even though equestrianism is one of the oldest sports, it is one that has not been thoroughly examined under the microscope of sport science. That time has come, of course, but making judgments about horse sports without any scientific evidence of how the most basic equipment or environmental conditions effect the welfare and safety of horses (and riders) is premature.

The research was led by Rachel Murray, MA, VetMB, MS, PhD, MRCVS, DipACVS, Dip ECVS; she is Senior Orthopedic Advisor for the Centre for Equine Studies at England's Animal Health Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group of the British Equestrian Federation World Class Programme. Working with the same team who broke new ground when they studied the effects of a new girth design just in time for the 2012 Olympics, this time Murray examined the effect of different bridles on specific points on a horse’s head and, in turn, the effect of different bridles on a horse’s movement and performance. The effects were measured, for the first part of the study, via the use of pressure sensitive film material placed under the noseband and headstall. The purpose of the study was to make a comparison of pressure readings that included a new design of bridle.

Rachel Murray, Russell Guire, Mark Fisher, Vanessa Fairfax
A bridle designed to avoid peak pressure locations under the headpiece
and noseband is associated with more uniform pressure and increased carpal and tarsal flexion,
compared with the horse’s usual bridle,
Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, Available online 7 September 2015,
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0737080615005535

Horses wearing the different bridles were later trotted in straight lines and evaluation with motion sensing software recorded and measured if there was a difference in the horse's movement between the bridles. Even the authors commented, with implied raised eyebrows, that “this is the first study investigating pressure patterns under a bridle during the stride, and with different bridle types”. 

They commented in another place, “To our knowledge there has been no previous reported investigation into the pattern of pressure distribution under bridles and whether alterations in design could alter pressure patterns or to improve performance”.

Early in the paper documenting the girth study, the same team wrote, "...there has been no previous reported investigation into the pattern of pressure distribution under girths and whether this could be alleviated to reduce the potential for development of injury or to improve performance."

Looking back, it was only in 1985--just 30 years ago--that Professor Hilary Clayton, then at the University of Saskatchewan, left mouths hanging at veterinary meetings by presenting her research into how horses used different types of bits. Clayton used fluoroscopy, which acts like video radiography, to demonstrate how horses worked the bits, and where bits sat in mouths.

Going back much further than that, readers of The Jurga Report may remember the story from earlier in the summer about equine welfare advocates in the early 1900s who became obsessed with the weight and bulk of draft horse bridles and their possible effect on the horse's comfort on hot summer days. Bitless bridles, "summer" bridles, and replaceable lightweight cheek pieces were given away for free, but only after considerable trial and error to come up with successful designs. In particular, the advocates campaigned to removed blinders, or blinkers, and recorded no ill effect to the horses who switched to open bridles. These motivated "researchers" had no pressure-sensitive film and no motion analysis. But the data they collected on hundreds of horses have been lost to equine science. 

We are now starting over, in a manner of speaking, as girths and bridles and various pieces of tack come under scrutiny in the modern equine laboratory, and the open forum of public discussion and conjecture.

It seems like the most basic research, yet it didn't exist in recognized scientific literature. Since Clayton's work on bits, there has been much more research on bits and bridles, but usually associated with their use or abuse related to dental disorders or behavior problems. Since the rise in interest in more welfare-oriented equine science research, the calculated manipulation of the double bridle, bits and reins eventually became the focus of secondary effects on the horse in the study of controversial "rollkur" training methods in dressage, with allegations of over-tightening of wide nosebands also drawing suspicion in recent years. 

As so often happens in science, researchers started out studying a problem, with a goal of solving it, and soon realized that they didn't have the data about how the equipment worked properly, for comparison. In studying the abnormal, the had no "normal" data for comparison. Equine science had an empty closet, in terms of evidence. It had another one, however, that was jumbled and overflowing with opinion and perception.

Public perceptions count: Germany's Jessica von Bredow-Werndl conscientiously projects an image of herself and her horse as healthy, happy athletes working together. In this photo, Unee stands without tack while Jessica lounges on his back, a favorite pose of hers. It should probably bear a "don't try this with your stallion at home" label, but the message is consistent with Jessica's public image. (Kiki Beelitz photo)

Public perceptions count: Germany's Jessica von Bredow-Werndl conscientiously projects an image of herself and her horse as healthy, happy athletes working together. In this photo, Unee stands without tack while Jessica lounges on his back, a favorite pose of hers. It should probably bear a "don't try this with your stallion at home" label, but the message is consistent with Jessica's public image. (Kiki Beelitz photo)

The rumbling outside the equestrian palace gates might be redefining the role that equitation science or even veterinary science can and will play in the future of sports.

“...Because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know.”--former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, referring to possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

Donald Rumsfeld could have been talking about equestrian sports.

If science can make up for some of the lost time and sustain the high level of credible research set by Murray and others, it will probably be the critical element that smooths the way forward. But it will be the equestrians and the promoters of the sports who make or break the future. How will they interpret or promote the research? Will they share it via open access publishing and white papers or will they hoard it, to use for their own purposes?

Ten years ago, the FEI promoted the concept of the “happy athlete” in dressage; today, PETA is still filing for the prosecution of riders for welfare violations. Jessica von Bredow-Werndl did her part this weekend, and other riders may find a way to do something in public that displays their legitimate partnership with their horses and concern for welfare.

The research on saddles and bridles and girths and side reins and so many other aspects of equestrianism should not be mothballed in the ivory towers of academia. Three of the leading researchers in the field are also accomplished equestrians--Rachel Murray, Sue Dyson and Hilary Clayton. Many others are, as well. They speak the language and ride the tide because what happens to equestrian sport affects them, as well, and because they are concerned.

Equine research is no longer an eccentric cousin with a room in the attic who gets a philanthropic donation check once a year. It is no longer just about colic and reproduction and diseases you're glad your horse will never have. It's also about how you ride and what can be measured in almost every facet of your horse's management, training and competition.

When people start asking questions, they need and deserve good answers, not opinions. Good science can help there, if it is given a chance. Today, we can't end an argument by saying, "Hey, go look it up." But tomorrow? You might be able to display a screen on your phone from a sensor that is measuring something on your horse, or instantly retrieve a research paper on your watch. It might not all be good news, but it's better than what we have now.

Because that's not much, if you are looking forward to a future for equestrian sports.

Links to articles mentioned here:

A bridle designed to avoid peak pressure locations under the headpiece and noseband is associated with more uniform pressure and increased carpal and tarsal flexion, compared with the horse’s usual bridle (Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 2015)

Girth pressure measurements reveal high peak pressures that can be avoided using an alternative girth design that also results in increased limb protraction and flexion in the swing phase.(Veterinary Journal 2013)

A fluoroscopic study of the position and action of the jointed snaffle bit in the horse's mouth (and) A fluoroscopic study of the position and action of different bits in the horse's mouth (Journal of Equine Veterinary Science 1984 and 1985)

Blinkers Off! Horses, Heat and Heavy Bridles Stirred Emotions Long Ago (The Jurga Report)

Falsterbo Moments (with FEI and Danish Equestrian Federation comments) on Epona.tv

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