Ethogram of the Ridden Horse Part 1: Introduction

Equitation science and applied ethology, that is, the scientific study of horse behaviour in the human domain (McGreevy & McLean, 2007), can greatly reduce risks related to human-horse interactions while simultaneously enhancing equine welfare with an effective, evidence-based approach to training and riding based on the natural and adaptive behaviours of horses, their specific behavioural needs and preferences, communication, cognitive abilities, and motivation (Goodwin, McGreevy, Waran & Mclean, 2009; Hall et. al, 2013; McGreevy & McLean, 2007; Starling, McLean & McGreevy, 2016).

An important achievement in equitation science is the anticipated development of the complete ethogram of the ridden horse, which will detect and score the presence and degree of pain experienced by a horse under saddle. Significant progress has been made on the first part of this, the facial expression ethogram, which focuses on ear position, eyes, nose, mouth, and head position, with the full body ethogram expected to be complete in 2018 (Dyson, 2017a; Dyson, 2017b; Dyson, Berger, Ellis & Mullard, 2017; Dyson, Berger, Ellis & Mullard, 2018;  Mullard, Berger, Ellis & Dyson, 2017).

Part 2, The Facial Expression Ethogram, focusses on current work in the development of a facial expression ethogram of ridden horses. Part 3, Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation, presents an overview of the methods traditionally used to detect pain, stress, or fear in a horse under saddle, and their shortcomings to illustrate why the ethogram of the ridden horse is such an important development.

What is an Ethogram?

An ethogram is a species-specific catalogue of all of the observed behaviours of an animal and the social, environmental, and other external factors that influence them (Hall & Heleski, 2017; McDonnell, 2003). In the case of domestic horses, these external factors include management, training, and riding by humans.

Two key publications on the equine ethogram are Sue McDonnell’s A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: The Equid Ethogram (2003) and G.H. Waring’s Horse Behaviour (2003). Waring’s book includes a comprehensive list of 143 distinct horse behaviours and references to the early ethologists who developed the equine ethogram (Hall & Heleski, 2017; Waring, 2003). Combined, McDonnell and Waring examine 8 main categories of behaviours and a series of sub-categories, as listed in Table 1. The books contain illustrations of the most common specific behaviours observed in horses and referred to in scientific literature (McDonnell, 2003; Waring, 2003). However, an ethogram of the ridden horse has not been available until now.

Table 1. The Equine Ethogram: Main Behaviours & SubcategoriesTable 1*italics indicate behaviours specific to Waring’s text.  (Source: McDonnell, 2003; Waring, 2003)

Components of the ethogram applied to equitation have primarily been used to record, evaluate, and assess the welfare of the ridden horse with a focus on stress behaviours relative to specific topics of research. For example, in 13 studies of horse behaviour presented by Hall & Heleski (2017), only 6 authors referred to an ethogram, citing a total of 11 ethograms between them, indicating a high degree of subjectivity in the study of equine behaviour and conflict between horse and rider. Studies to date have also been limited by low numbers of participants and in some cases, overlapping participants, with the range of behaviours included dependent on the aim of the study (Hall & Heleski, 2003; Pierard et al., 2015). Table 2 presents an overview of such studies since 2006, none of which distinctly indicate the detection of pain in the ridden horse as a focal point of the research.

Table 2. Studies in Equitation Science Involving Ridden Horse since 2006Table 2(Source: Hall & Heleski, 2017; Pierard et al., 2015)

Part 2: The Facial Expression Ethogram

Part 3: Common Methods of Behavioural Interpretation


Dyson, S. (2017a). Facial Expressions Research – is your horse trying to tell you he’s in pain? Apr 28, 2017. Retrieved from

Dyson, S. (2017b). Facial Expressions Study – Developing and Applying the Ethogram. June 1, 2017. Retrieved from

Dyson, S., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D., & J. Mullard. (2017). Can the presence of musculoskeletal pain be determined from the facial expressions of ridden horses (FEReq)? Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 19 (2017) 78-89.

Dyson, S. Berger, J., Ellis, A.D. and J. Mullard. (2018). Development of an ethogram for a pain scoring system in ridden horses and its application to determine the presence of musculoskeletal pain” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research 23 (2018) 47-57.

Goodwin, D., McGreevy, P., Waran, N., & A. McLean. (2009). How equitation science can elucidate and refine horsemanship techniques. The Veterinary Journal 181 (2009) 5-11.

Hall, C. & C. Heleski. (2017). The role of the ethogram in equitation science. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 190 (2017) 102-110.

Hall, C., Huws, N. White, C. Taylor, E. Owen, H. & P. McGreevy. (2013). Assessment of ridden horse behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8 (2013) 62-73.

Hall, C., Kay, R. & K. Yarnell. (2014). Assessing ridden horse behaviour: Professional judgement and physiological measures. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 9 (2014) 22-29.

McDonnell, S. (2003). A Practical Field Guide to Horse Behavior: The Equid Ethogram. Lexington, KY: The Blood-Horse, Inc.

McGreevy, P.D. & A.N. McLean. (2007). Roles of learning theory and ethology in equitation. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2 (2007) 108-118.

Mullard, J., Berger, J.M., Ellis, A.D. & S. Dyson. (2017). Development of an ethogram to describe facial expressions in ridden horses (FEReq). Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 18 (2017) 7-12.

Pierard, M., Hall, C., König von Borstel, U., Averis, A., Hawson, L., McLean, A., Nevison, C., Visser, K., & P. McGreevy. (2015). Evolving protocols for research in equitation science. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour 10 (2015) 255-256.

Starling, M., McLean, A., & P. McGreevy. (2016). The Contribution of Equitation Science to Minimising Horse-Related Risks to Humans. Animals 2016, 6, 15; doi:10.3390/ani6030015


Jurga, F. (2017). Sue Dyson: Double video explanation of equine ethogram for recognizing lameness and pain. The Hoof Blog June 01, 2017. Retrieved from