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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Rider effects on horses’ conflict behaviour, rein tension, physiological measures and rideability scores

Christensen, Janne Winther; Munk, Rikke; Hawson, Lesley; Palme, Rupert; Larsen, Torben; Egenvall, Agneta; König von Borstel, Uta U.; Rørvang, Maria Vilain


Many breeding organisations include a subjective scoring of rideability by a professional rider into their evaluation of sports horses, but the consistency and reliability of the scoring system is debateable. The aim of this study was to investigate (i) whether professional riders agree in their scoring of rideability, and (ii) whether rideability scores are affected by rein tension, horse conflict behaviour, heart rate, and salivary cortisol, and (iii) whether riders induce different levels of conflict behaviour and physiological responses in the horses. Ten professional, female riders each rode 10 dressage horses (level M German scale; n = 100 combinations) through a standardised dressage test (10 min warm-up followed by a 4-min test) and subsequently scored the horses for rideability on the official 1-10 scale (1 = poor to 10 = excellent) from the Danish Riding Federation. Rein tension, horse heart rate, saliva cortisol and conflict behaviour were measured for each rider-horse pair. The riders were inconsistent in their scoring of rideability to the individual horses, e.g. scores for one of the horses ranged from 1 to 8. There was a significant effect of rider (P = 0.003) and the frequency of conflict behaviour (undesired head movements: P < 0.001, breaking the gait: P = 0.013, and other evasive behaviour: P = 0.032) on rideability scores, i.e. the more conflict behaviour the lower the score. There was no significant effect of rein tension and the physiological measures on rideability scores. However, there was a significant effect of rider on rein tension, horses' heart rate and increases in saliva cortisol concentrations and a tendency for some types of conflict behaviour, suggesting that some riders induced more discomfort in the horses. Future studies could help shed light on which elements of riding style are particularly important for sports horse welfare. In conclusion, this study found a large variation in rideability scores assigned to ten sports horses by ten professional riders. Rideability scores were dependent on the level of horse conflict behaviour, but not rein tension and physiological measures. Further studies are needed to improve the objectivity, consistency and reliability of rideability assessment of sports horses.


Equitation science; Heart rate; Horse riding; Sport horse; Temperament; Training cues

Published in

Applied Animal Behaviour Science
2021, Volume: 234, article number: 105184