Tough question time.

Which horses have better health and welfare: leisure-riding horses? Or competition horses?

A recent Swiss study has just shown that competition horses generally face greater limitations on their movement freedom. But leisure horses tend to be more obese and have slightly poorer-fitting saddles.

And meanwhile, both groups have equivalent rates of back pain and low-grade lameness that frequently go undetected by their riders.

“There’s so much criticism in the equestrian world, from rider to rider but also within groups and disciplines, and it’s time to stop pointing fingers,” said Marie Dittmann, PhD, researcher at the Equine Sports Medicine Unit at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

As part of a larger study on orthopaedic issues in horses, Dittmann and her fellow researchers took advantage of data they were collecting in order to compare some basic health and welfare indicators in horses used in competition circuits and those used mainly for leisure riding. Nearly 250 Swiss riders responded to an online survey containing 34 questions about their disciplines and the horses’ husbandry, health, training, and tack. Their horses then underwent onsite physical evaluations by trained veterinarians.

They found that leisure riders tended to have a “more horse-centred” approach with their husbandry, keeping horses with free access to the outdoors in groups without shoes, Dittmann said. Competition riders, on average, more than doubled the Swiss law of minimum turnout time of two hours per day, so outdoor time was similar to what the researchers found for leisure horses. However, their access to free movement and to other horses was more restricted, which could have a negative effect on their welfare, she said.

On the flip side, though, these horses benefited from more frequent saddle checks and slightly fewer saddle fit issues, and their riders took more lessons with instructors, which could lead to better riding and, consequently, better orthopaedic health for their horses, she said. They also had better body condition scores, as leisure horses tended to be more obese.

Overall, orthopaedic issues in both groups were “relatively frequent,” with competition and leisure horses alike showing a similar prevalence of signs of back pain and low-grade (1 to 2) lameness, Dittmann said. (For ethical reasons, horses with overt lameness (grade 3 or higher) were excluded from the study, as the larger study project required that the horses be ridden.)

“Our study indicates that competition horses aren’t necessarily in a lower state of health or welfare than leisure horses, and that leisure horses aren’t necessarily in a lower state of health or welfare than competition horses,” Dittmann explained. “In a way, I was actually pleased to see that they weren’t so different, as maybe this can help calm the debates and constant critiques from one group to another.”

The health and welfare issues detected by the researchers should raise a flag for both groups, she said. More education could help these riders better recognize problems with orthopaedic, body condition, and saddle fitting issues in order to improve them and, hence, their horses’ quality of life.

Still, it’s important to view these issues on a scale of relativity, she added.

“Sure, we picked up on health and welfare issues in these Swiss horses, and of course there should always be an effort to improve the way we care for our horses, whether they’re used for competition or leisure activities,” Dittmann said.

“But we also need to keep in mind that these aren’t life-threatening problems—and many of them don’t warrant the severity of some of the criticism we see in the industry or on social media,” she said. “The horses in our study are all living relatively good lives. The issues revealed in our research—obesity, subtle lameness, back pain, sub-optimally fitting saddles—are definitely relevant for the affected horses, but these are issues that should be optimised, not sensationalised.”

“From my personal experience and based on the data, Swiss competition riders could allow their horses more access to free movement and social contact with other horses. Whereas leisure riders could have their saddles checked yearly and closely monitor if the food intake of their equine companion matches the exercise regime, to prevent obesity. Owners often smile at fat ponies or think it’s cute that they are a bit chunky, but many forget that obesity can be a serious health issue.”