Sunday 2 October 2022

Time to do more than 'not watch anymore'? A brief review of Julie Taylor's new book

 Some months ago, I received my copy of Julie Taylor’s recent book ‘I can’t watch anymore’ The case for dropping Equestrian from the Olympic Games: An Open Letter to the International Olympic Committee.

I picked it up intending to browse and ended up reading it from cover to cover. 

Why? I have been in the ‘I can’t watch anymore’ camp for over a decade, and thought I was fairly familiar with the arguments. What kept me reading was:

    •  Realising I didn’t know the half of it.
    •  Feeling that I should know.
    •  The clarity and thoroughness of the arguments presented.

For several years, I have been hopeful that life was improving for top level competition horses; more comfortable tack, better arena surfaces, consideration of their needs beyond physical comfort and so on. Although I felt that the bigger questions – relating to the use of horses in competition – were not being adequately addressed, I consoled myself that at least conditions were improving.

This book provides convincing evidence that my hopes were wildly optimistic. Many important topics are discussed; doping, denerving, rollkur, the gap between rules and practice and transparency to name a few.

It brings you to an inescapable realisation - that when another picture of a horse in clear distress is shown (as on the book cover), or a photo is published of a horse with blood on their side after competing, or a report is given of a de-nerved horse participating in high level competition - the response from regulatory bodies may well not be to act to improve equine welfare. 

Instead, we see within this book too many cases where the response is instead to relax regulation in the troublesome area, or concentrate on how to make the issue either more palatable or less accessible to the public. For example: 

  • The removal of the ban on riding de-nerved horses (FEI, 2013)
  • Shifting the definitions of prohibited substances and relaxing penalties when horses test positive for them (I was astonished to hear of a horse jumping in the Olympics whilst testing positive for a local anaesthetic - authorised by the FEI Veterinary Commission on the day)
  • Downgrading the 'blood rule' to a chapter on 'eliminations' - a consequence most often arising from a mistake, rather than it's former classification as an issue of abuse of the horse. 

Whatever your opinion about competing on horseback (in whatever form), all horse lovers can agree that at the very least ‘good enough’ welfare of these horses must be maintained, and the bodies responsible for monitoring this standard should be scrutinised. This book scrutinises. And should, I feel, be read by anyone who wants to make an informed decision about whether they want to watch, or participate, anymore.

Julie Taylor will be presenting a webinar for the EBA on October 16th 2022, booking at You could join us and learn more. Or, if you are reading this after the 16th, contact me at to access the recording. 

I close with a few quotes from the book, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

‘The Olympic disciplines, especially dressage, commemorate the fact that, in past centuries, we involved one of the most peaceful species in the world in our own violent conflicts, forcing them to carry us to war; to starve, to be blown up and shot at and to be slaughtered and eaten when we ran out of rations. To keep that dream alive, we continue to ship horses around the world on lorries and aeroplanes, in order to make them do tricks, the purpose of which they cannot possibly comprehend. It is a truly bizarre habit, the time for which has surely passed.

  Humankind stands at a crossroads regarding our relationship with each other and with the rest of the living planet. We should be looking forward to a more peaceful, reciprocally respectful coexistence. Not back in time at our own glorified violence and domination.’


‘NSAIDs are not considered performance enhancing when taken by human athletes because the human athlete is both the one who wants to win and the one whose body has to work through the pain. In Equestrian, the athlete wants to win and the horse wants to be elsewhere, doing horse things with other horses.’

‘If you have ever watched dressage on TV or in person and wondered what is was for, don’t feel bad. Not even the judges know what it’s about. They are expected to award scores for things which are not happening, so they are likely to be as confused as you are.’ 

Sunday 27 June 2021

How to help horses with separation anxiety

 Three blurry pictures of horses in the distance... this struck me leaving the yard tonight, and I wanted to photograph from a distance so as not to attract them to me. 

What struck me? That all 3 of these horses, Harvey, Paddy and Tigger, have been described as suffering from separation anxiety. Paddy (the grey) was most extreme, and when he first came to me, he would quickly sweat up and even get colicky if he was separated from certain horses, even if others were still around. Tigger would jump pretty much anything to stay close to other horses. Harvey was never separated from the others after he arrived at my yard nearly 2 years ago, kept an anxious eye on them, and was quick to follow if they left. 

So, these pictures show all of these horses feeling OK about being on their own. Not hard evidence I admit, you'll have to take my word for it! 

How did this happen? Every case is different, but it is very common, and was the case for all of these 3 horses, that their extreme worry about being more than a few feet from companions was due to their overall mental well-being - feeling generally stressed, uncertain, unsafe - leading to a need for the security of other horses. 

In the past, I would have approached separation anxiety in a client's horse with training based solutions. Using systematic desensitisation/counter conditioning/shaping, trying to sensitively help the horse to learn that they were OK on their own. This can ask a lot of the client, careful training with excellent reading of body language, and often a lot of time. And it won't be truly effective if the horse doesn't come to feel truly safe without the other horse(s). 

That feeling of safety may have roots which are not addressed by such training. For example, pain issues may leave a horse feeling vulnerable and unsafe. Similarly a new environment, other stressful events, lack of choice, food deprivation, unavoidable aversives - to name but a few - can leave an individual horse feeling insecure and in need of the company of others. 

So - what did we do with these 3 horses that worked? Adapt their environment, management and interactions to optimise physical and mental well-being. For example, ensuring constant access to forage (albeit often soaked hay to keep weight down), as much choice as possible, ensuring physical needs are met, minimising aversives and giving constant access to other horses.

 In all cases (and I have seen this with many client's horses too), as they feel more secure in themselves, they start making choices to separate a little from the others. For example, the others wanted to come in and shelter from the sun and the flies today, Tigger preferred to stay out and graze; so he stayed out on his own, out of sight of the others and more than 150M from them. Initially, this might be a lesser distance, and the horse might begin to feel uncomfortable on his own - which he can resolve by re-joining the others. 

A hard thing to take on board sometimes - we like to 'do' something to 'fix' a problem like this. That the 'doing' involves establishing physical and emotional safety for your horse (as far as possible) in all aspects of their lives, then having patience as the feeling of security takes root and grows may feel too passive, but is wonderfully effective.

Saturday 9 January 2021

Attachment theory and horses - serve and return

 A few people have been writing about attachment theory and horses recently, so I thought I'd 'go public' with this little piece relating to attachment theory that I was putting together as part of the Equine Behaviour Affiliation's Applied Behaviour Course. 

Serve and return. If it's new to you, this video may help 

InBrief: The Science of Neglect

So, that's a good introduction for humans, and particularly the importance of serve and return for children. 

As adults, this still matters - for example just brief eye contact with a trusted friend can really help to calm you when you are feeling worried. 

How about horses? The relationships that are central to a horse's life will hopefully be equine, but aspects of attachment theory can help us to think about how we interact with them too. 

Here's a little clip of Harvey, an ex racehorse who lives at my yard. Harvey has just been attacked by his food bowl! He somehow managed to flip it up and fire food into his face and got a big fright. 5 minutes later he is still not eating. 

Here, I think we have some serve and return. He touches me (and it's not for treats - he knows all about my right pocket!), I respond, and he then feels safe enough to eat. He repeats this movement a few times before really settling.

Completing this serve and return might seem a small thing to us, but think how you feel when you try to catch that friend's eye when you are worried and she looks away or ignores you. It's not so different, and can make a huge difference to the horse and really strengthen a relationship. 

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Grazing muzzles: thoughts on applying research findings to the individual

This is a great example of considering the individual as well as research.

Also considering what the research actually tells us - for example, testing 6 ponies is completely understandable from a research point of view, and provides useful information, but is obviously not enough to draw conclusions about most horses from.

In this paper, grazing muzzles are found to have several benefits for the ponies tested, and no measured problems. For these ponies, grazing muzzles would seem to improve their welfare.

For the individual horse - consider the pros and cons and that horse's reaction to the muzzle. Although the ponies in this research showed no increase in physiological stress in the measurements taken, some horses are clearly very stressed by a grazing muzzle and there may be other less stressful solutions to weigh management.

Throughout nearly 20 years of looking after Paddy, the only item he has ever consistently avoided - with an added kick threat if I persisted - is a grazing muzzle. In his case, weight control was essential, but he seemed much happier with a small bare paddock and company. Others have accepted it without seeming too concerned. For the horse who is clearly not thrilled about the muzzle but does tolerate it - careful ongoing evaluation of your options!

Learn from the research, but always listen to your horse too.

Wednesday 26 February 2020

Equine Aggression: Character or well-being?

Flynn (the chestnut horse in the video) is lovely with people, but in the first yard shown in the video spent a fair amount of time threatening and moving the other horses.
It's common to label a horse like this as aggressive, antisocial, dominant.
There are actually many factors involved in Flynn's behaviour. Out in the field with the others he looked very relaxed. He needs to have a good bit of space to feel he can safely be around other horses. So much of his behaviour was about maintaining a safe space around himself. This may have come from being cornered/injured/threatened by other horses in the past - we don't know.
If we label an animal, we tend to lose empathy for them, and we may be annoyed or frustrated by their behaviour.
Instead, we could consider this behaviour as a symptom of an underlying problem; his well-being is compromised. It could be a sign of pain, fear; really any form of stress. We can then consider how to help him.

Having sufficient space and feeling safe are basic needs for all animals, and vary for each individual. In this case, we could simply say that his basic needs are not being met in this environment, causing stress which then (as is often the case) causes aggression.

Flynn will also behave more aggressively than usual if other basic needs are not being met; for example if he is cold and wet, or in pain.

Even if we can't resolve the issue entirely (we didn't move to the new environment in the video for over 5 years), we can at least make some changes to improve things, and appreciate that we should be looking for ways to help this horse rather than impugning his good character.

Thursday 20 February 2020

Horses as individuals (not statistics)

Asking a good equine behaviourist questions about your horse may initially be frustrating. They are often going to say something like ‘it depends’.

Why is my horse bucking after jumps?
Why won’t my horse go in the trailer?
Why does my horse pin his ears when people pass her stable?
Why does my horse yawn after I put his bridle on?
What should I do if my horse is pulling away from me for grass when I lead her?
And so on.

The answer to all of these questions is – it depends…

Part of the reason ‘it depends’ is that every horse is an individual, and whilst research and experience may both reveal patterns in horses’ body language and behaviour, the individual may well not conform to the norm. So a behaviourist will want to ask an awful lot of questions and actually see your horse if at all possible before giving any sort of opinion.

In a recent journal club with IAABC colleagues, we discussed an interesting paper, ‘Horses associate individual human voices with the valence of past interactions: a behavioural and electrophysiological study’ Serenella d’Ingeo, Angelo Quaranta, Marcello Siniscalchi, Mathilde Stomp, Caroline Coste, Charlotte Bagnard, Martine Hausberger & Hugo Cousillas. Scientific Reports | (2019) 9:11568 |

The authors of this paper were interested in how horses responded to a voice they associated with a negative experience (V-) as opposed to their response to a voice they associated with a positive experience (V+). The figure below is reproduced from the paper (Many thanks to Springer Nature for their generous copyright policy!), with my simple additions of the letters A, B, C and D and a vertical blue line. Each dot in the figure represents a horse, so 16 horses in total are represented.

Figure from above cited paper: Theta wave relative frequency in % of the power profile (right hemisphere): correlation between data obtained for each horse during the playback of V+ and V− respectively.

Without reviewing the findings in this paper, we can simply use this as an example. Please don’t worry if, like me, you are not well versed in the significance of brain waves!

Here, a notable observation might be that 12 of the 16 horses are to the left of the blue line drawn from 0 on the x axis; the majority of horses have a negative measurement in response to the voice associated with a positive experience. This would be a typical and very valid point for discussion – we have found a pattern. 

However, this figure is also an excellent reminder to consider the individual.

For example, horse A measures 30 for the voice associated with the negative experience (V-), and around -15 for the voice associated with the positive experience (V+), whilst horse B is -20 and 20 for V- and V+ respectively. So they are showing opposite responses in this test. Horse C has negative readings for both experiences, whilst horse D has positive readings for both experiences. Horse D also has a strongly positive measure for V+, whilst most other horses are negative or close to 0.

Furthermore, if we were to look at, say, the mean average of V+ measurements, we would get a figure around -5. We need to be very aware that several individuals showed very different measurements.

Statistics gathered for groups give us useful information, but should not be assumed to relate to the individual. 

That this figure beautifully illustrates the point that each horse is an individual was observed by Dr Robin Foster at the journal club, so all credit is due to her for highlighting this. The explanation given here, and any mistakes therein are down to me.

Thursday 8 November 2018

horses, fireworks and feeling safe

For very obvious reasons, feral horses prefer to be in wide open spaces, where they can detect threats from as great a distance as possible. Other needs - for food, water, shelter and so on may take them to less open spaces where they will be more vigilant - predators may lurk there.

When I built my yard, I wanted to provide adequate shelter from the scottish winter weather, but also tried to keep it as open as possible so it would feel like a safe place. And they look very relaxed and happy in the yard, and come in from the field to rest and doze.
As the weather turns, they have been spending more and more time in the yard. However, coming up the morning after fireworks night, it was interesting to see that they had hardly been in the yard. It was clear that they had spent the night in the most wide open area of the fields. Maybe seems obvious, but I thought it worth commenting on. Our view is often that a stable is a place where a horse can feel and be safe, and depending on the horse's situation and past experiences this may be the case, but often if the horse senses danger a wide open space will feel much safer. 

Of course, horses did not evolve to cope with traffic, fences, and thousands of other hazards in the environments we keep them in. Where a horse will actually be safe, may be different from where he will feel safe, but his emotional state and possible responses to feeling endangered are an important factor to consider.