Stewardship of the Equine Environment

Equestrians have an important role to play in environmental stewardship. A duty of care should be a central focus for all of us, care for the animals whose lives we are responsible for, and care of the land and resources that sustain us all. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized and technology becomes more ingrained in our lives, it’s easy to overlook the importance and value of the natural ecosystem, the services it provides, the roles we and our horses play in it, and the ways in which we impact it. 

I recently completed my 10th course in the Equine Studies Program, Stewardship of the Equine Environment. The course provided a great deal of insight into many aspects of stewardship, from the micro level to the macro, from paddock and pasture management to watershed protection. As a non-horse owning equestrian, I want to be as knowledgeable and prepared as I can be prior to adopting a horse of my own. Even though it is unlikely I will ever manage or own a property, knowing what to look for in a boarding facility will be equally important for the health of my horse and my peace of mind. As someone who strives to minimize their personal environmental impact, it only seems right to be aware of the ways in which horse ownership may alter my environmental footprint. 

There were so many fascinating topics raised throughout the course, with countless examples of how horses can be managed to minimize their environmental impact, as well as many examples of mismanagement and tales of environmental degradation. The latter may arise simply due to a lack of knowledge more so than a lack of care. Sometimes, it isn’t until we step back and look at the bigger picture that we realize how our actions, management methods, et cetera may be impacting the broader ecosystem. When (if) the connections are made, it is up to us as individuals to decide how to proceed. We can choose the path of least resistance and carry on with business as usual, often to our own detriment or the detriment of our horses, or endeavor to learn how things can be done differently to benefit not only ourselves, but the well being of our horses and the broader ecosystem. 

The equine industry has a great opportunity to be at the forefront of change and innovation. There are a number of leaders in the field already, and a number of actions that can be taken at the individual level, from composting manure and collecting rainwater for use around the farm, to retrofitting existing facilities for energy efficiency and greening equestrian events – the opportunities are endless! It has been very encouraging to learn about green design concepts incorporated into equestrian facilities right here in Ontario.

Ontario Equestrian could be a great steward of change in this area by developing a new component for their Provincial Facility Certification program, a program that, as it stands, makes no mention of environmental stewardship or, arguably even more important, equine welfare, beyond the requirement that paddocks be safely enclosed with access to fresh water. Rather, their Facility Accreditation Checklist consists of basic requirements for rider safety and supervision, including adequate lighting, safe arena fencing and footing, storage of feed and medication, manure storage and disposal, trail safety, and emergency preparedness. Furthermore, there is zero information about environmental stewardship on the Equestrian Canada website. 

A first step could be something as simple as Ontario Equestrian and/or Equestrian Canada featuring a couple of articles or blog posts showcasing green design initiatives of various equestrian facilities. Information sessions and workshops could also be organized at riding facilities and events to educate the broader equestrian community and foster dialogue, support for and adoption of green design concepts and environmental stewardship.

What I would like to see is a program similar to the EquuRES program that was launched in Normandy, France in 2014. The first environmental program dedicated to the horse industry, EquuRES was developed by the Lower Normandy Horse Council as a way to foster sustainable development and environmental stewardship while promoting equine welfare. Initiated with the intention of creating a national and international certification process to foster sustainability throughout the equine industry, 57 facilities/businesses across France have been awarded the EquuRES label over the last 5 years. Imagine a program that encourages steps to shift practices at the farm and business level, to educate, inspire change, and achieve sustainability within the equine industry. Is this not what we should all be striving for?

In an ideal world, a course like Stewardship of the Equine Environment would be mandatory for anyone operating an equestrian facility or managing equestrian events. Imagine operating or boarding at a facility that manages pastures and paddocks in a manner that fosters both equine welfare and conserves natural resources, leaving as much land as possible in a natural state to support local wildlife and ecosystem services; or a facility that is designed as efficiently as possible, incorporating green design concepts to reduce operating costs and conserve energy, maximizing solar exposure to provide natural lighting and generate electricity; or a facility that harvests rainwater to reduce water consumption, and both composts manure and converts it into energy to eliminate the need for disposal. All of these things are possible! 

Minimizing waste and environmental impacts, fostering ecosystem health and resilience, prioritizing conservation and equine welfare – that’s my definition of stewardship of the equine environment.

EquuRES: Sustainable Development Goals for the Equine Industry

Imagine boarding at a facility and supporting equestrian businesses that prioritize the conservation of natural resources, support local supply chains, foster equine welfare, reduce energy consumption, use renewable energy, properly manage manure and other waste by incorporating waste reduction methods (including composting and recycling), and properly maintain buildings to reduce operating costs and conserve energy. Imagine a program that encourages steps to shift practices at the farm and business level, to educate, inspire change, and achieve sustainability within the equine industry.

In 2014, such a program was launched in Normandy, France. Said to be “the very first environmental program dedicated to the horse industry”, EquuRES was developed by the Lower Normandy Horse Council as a way to foster sustainable development and environmental stewardship, while promoting equine welfare.

Equestrian organizations that comply with the criteria set forth under EquuRES are awarded a label based on their level of compliance and can progress through 3 stages, Engagement, Progression, Excellence.

Initiated with the intention of creating a national and international certification process to foster sustainability throughout the equine industry, 57 facilities/businesses across France have been awarded the EquuRES label over the last 5 years.

Does anyone know of any similar programs in other countries? How does your facility/sector or the businesses you support promote these or similar objectives?


The Sustainable Horse, Equures, the horse industry’s commitment to sustainability

Conseil des Chevaux Normandie, The EquuRES Label

The Evolution of Equus

The evolution of the horse is fascinating! Equidae (the horse family) evolved over 55 million years, with more than 30 distinct species. The only genus surviving today is Equus, which includes horses, donkeys, and zebras.

Did you know that horses became extinct in both North and South America about 10,000 years ago? According to evidence from the North American fossil record, there were three waves of mass extinction ranging from the end of the Miocene to the late Pliocene.

Ten species of horses were lost during the first extinction event near the end of the Miocene (approx. 6 million years ago), and six more species become extinct during the early Pliocene (approx. 4.5 million years ago).

Three horse species survived the two earlier extinction events and of these, the two three-toed Hipparion species, the Nannippus and the Cormohipparion, faced the same fate about two million years ago in the late Pliocene.

In the very late Pliocene, about 2.5 million years ago, there were two to four species of equus present in North America. However, near the Pleistocene (approx. 11,000 years ago) there was another mass extinction event, which saw the loss of horses, mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, camels and tapirs as well as many large carnivores (lions, saber-toothed tigers, and dire wolves).

While the exact cause of this most recent extinction event is still debated, the two commonly accepted theories are rapid climate change and overhunting by humans.

Horses were re-introduced to North America by the conquistadors beginning in 1493, when they brought Andalusians, Spanish Barbs, and the now extinct Spanish Jennets to the Caribbean Islands. I’ve written a bit about this previously.


American Museum of Natural History: Horse

Hulbert, Richard C. “The Ancestry of The Horse”. Horses Through Time edited by Sandra L. Olsen, Carnegie Institute, 1996, 11-43. (p. 28)

Controversial Techniques: Tail Alterations

This week in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare we were tasked with researching legislation on controversial practices, a number of which have been covered in previous courses. As per my usual approach, I decided to choose something I had relatively little knowledge about, the tail alteration known as nicking or cutting.

I found myself feeling squeamish while researching this topic and at a loss to comprehend why mutilation is preferred over a naturally set tail. Ugh. Humans.

Tail nicking is a surgical procedure that heightens the tail carriage of a horse and is primarily seen in American Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses for the sole purpose of showing/cosmetic reasons.

To achieve the higher tail set, the tendons on the underside of the tail are cut and the dock is set in a ‘desirable’ upright position and then placed in a harness-like device (a tail set) to prevent the tendons from reattaching while the tail heals. Even after the incision has healed, a tail set will likely be worn by the horse most of the time to ensure the tail does not settle back into a natural, relaxed position.This controversial procedure, seen by many as harmless, can have devastating consequences for the horse, including loss of the ability to move the tail. More severe complications may include infected incisions which may lead to peritonitis (a severe abdominal infection), and in severe cases, colic resulting from peritonitis.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association released a position statement opposing tail alterations for cosmetic or competitive purposes in 2013, and the American Association of Equine Practitioners condemned the practice of tail alterations in 2015, urging the establishment and enforcement of guidelines by breed associations and disciplines to eliminate tail alteration practices.

So where do breed associations and disciplines stand on this? Is it addressed in North American legislation?

Nothing was found on the American Saddlebred Horse Association website. However, photos on the website indicate that altered, unnaturally high set tails are prized. A further search revealed a document titled “2016 Points of Emphasis”. In regards to the tail, horses with crooked tails must be penalized. Ironically, crooked or wry tails are commonly a result of nicking. It does specify that horses may be shown with unset tails without penalty, however, there is a glaring absence of any other mention of tail alterations.

A preliminary search didn’t reveal anything related to tail alterations associated with the Canadian or Alberta American Saddlebred Horse Associations or the Tennessee Walking Horse  Breeders & Exhibitors Association.

The NFACC Code of Practice for the care and handling of equines specifies on page 46 that tail nicking and blocking are unacceptable and must not be performed. No such statement was found in the USDA Horse Protection Act.

Further reading

Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of Horse Tail Modifications


The truth about tail blocks


“American Saddlebred” by Jean. Retrieved from


Controversial Techniques: Rollkur

I would be hard-pressed to say which of the controversial equitation techniques I find most appalling, there are many. However, I decided to look at rollkur for an assignment for one of the Equine Behaviour courses I’ve taken. It’s a topic that came up again recently in Global Perspectives in Equine Welfare because of the inherent contradictions of the practice. While to some it is obvious that the horse is in a state of distress, others associate it with grace and beauty. It is a position achieved by force with the application of excessive and prolonged pressure on the mouth to hold the horse’s head down in a hyper-flexed position, as is commonly seen is dressage.

The welfare implications include discomfort, pain, and compromised breathing and vision (McGreevy et al, 2010). It is this impaired vision that is thought to make the horse appear more responsive to the rider, as the horse is more reliant on the rider’s cues than its own senses of vision and proprioception (von Borstel et al., 2009).  

In a study of 15 horses during the conditioning phase of rollkur, a number of behaviours that are significant indicators of stress, discomfort, frustration, and conflict were recorded. The results indicate notable increases in tail-swishing, attempted bucks, crabbing, abnormal oral behaviour, ears fixed back, and head-tossing when in rollkur versus normal poll flexion. 14 of the 15 horses exhibited a distinct preference for regular poll flexion versus rollkur (von Borstel et al., 2009).

Another concern is that inducing any degree of hyperflexion is in violation of the principles of learning theory because it requires two simultaneous responses (neck flexion and deceleration) to one cue (bit pressure) (McGreevy et al., 2009).

On the advice of a former riding instructor, I purchased the book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative by Philippe Karl (2014). In it, Karl presents the physical impacts of rollkur by muscle group. Here’s a brief summary:

  • The cervical ligaments undergo extreme and prolonged stretching that may lead to tearing, separation, and inflammation
  • The parotid glands are compressed and may become distorted, resulting in very painful inflammation and a loss of elasticity
  • The brachio-cephalic muscles, which connect the head to the forelegs, are extremely shortened and contracted, overloading and blocking the movement of the shoulders

Furthermore, the horse’s vision is negatively affected, with limited monocular vision to the sides and a very limited range of binocular vision at its feet. The horse is essentially moving blindly, unable to attain a full field of vision. The horse’s sense of gravity is also thought to be affected by the fixed head position.

The inability of the horse to properly sense its position through the normal tactile, visual and gravitational senses may result in balance disorders akin to seasickness. At least that’s a theory presented in this book.

Karl states “overbending, an unnatural attitude obtained by hands that are pulled backwards by various restraining devices, is a vulgar approach…and arises from a serious lack of knowledge of the horse…It is an authoritarian and brutal approach to domination that significantly deprives the horse of its capacities and places ‘man’s noblest conquest’ in the position of a slave restrained in shackles” (p. 27).

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) has effectively banned rollkur from competition and training, however, it still permits sustained flexion of the horses’ neck as long as the nose remains in front of the vertical.  It is also still acceptable to maintain a horse’s head and neck carriage in a sustained or fixed position for up to 10 minutes during training exercises (, 2010).

Imagine what it would feel like to have your head held in a fixed position by 5 kilograms of force – the mean rein tension recorded in dressage to maintain a horse’s head and neck posture (International Society for Equitation Science, undated). Can any degree of forced, sustained flexion be considered ethical?

This is in direct contradiction of the main teaching of negative reinforcement training – that correct, welfare-appropriate training is achieved when pressure is released as soon as the desired response is performed. The “ability of the horse to maintain a particular head and neck posture that is appropriate for the stage of training without continuous or high rein tension, is fundamental to maintaining welfare” (International Society for Equitation Science, undated).

To do otherwise should be correctly labeled as excessive force and punishment.


References (2010). “Rollkur: FEI offers hyperflexion guidelines.” Retrieved from

International Society for Equitation Science. (undated). ISES position statement on alterations of the horses’ head and neck posture in equitation. Retrieved from

Karl, Philippe. (2014). Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage: A search for a classical alternative. (5th ed.). Richmond, UK: Cadmos Publishing Limited

McGreevy, P.D., Harman, A., McLean, A. & L. Hawson. (2010). “Over-flexing the horse’s neck: A modern equestrian obsession.” Journal of Veterinary Behaviour: Clinical Applications and Research. 5(4) 180-186

Von Borstel, U.U., Heatly Duncan, I.J., Shoveller, A.K., Merkies, K., Keeling, L.J., and S.T. Millman. (2009). “Impact of riding in a coercively obtained Rollkur posture on welfare and fear of performance horses.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 116(2-4) 228-236


By Oliver Abels

To the Rider/Owner Who…

A great reminder for us all! Written by Katy Malone of South Woolley Livery & Coaching.

“To the rider who wears budget jodhpurs or tracksuit bottoms and wellies – good for you. You know that your horse couldn’t care less what you are wearing and you know how important it is to be comfortable when riding.

To the ‘all the gear and no idea’ rider – wow! You look incredible, your horse has everything it could ever wish for and you are keeping equestrian merchants in business. You don’t have to be a grand prix rider to wear matchy-matchy. Go, you!

To the rider who rides once a week (if they’re lucky) – brilliant! It is so difficult to fit horses in around the rest of our lives. It’s great that you make the time to do the most that you can with your horse.

To the rider who never rides their horse – no problem. I doubt your horse cares whether it is ridden or not. How lovely for your horse to spend its life being fed, groomed and grazing in the fields, not having to do any work.

To the rider who rides every day – go for it! Your dedication is admirable and your horse is benefiting from a great fitness and training regime. Well done.

To the barefoot fanatic – I admire your passion. Barefoot is the best option for many horses. It is wonderful that you are trying to improve your horse’s comfort and foot health.

To the owner of the traditionally shod horse – fantastic! Shoes are the best option for many horses. It’s great to know that your horse’s feet are protected from the surfaces that we ask them to work on.

To the rider who trains with every professional and expert going – brilliant. What a wealth of knowledge and expertise you have access to.

To the self-taught rider – you must be so proud. What an achievement to have made all those discoveries yourself.

To the high-achieving rider – you inspire me. Your results and rosettes are impressive. They are not won without hard work, commitment and sacrifice.

To the rider who has never won anything – who cares?! Rosettes are not the be-all and end-all. As long as you enjoy riding, that is what matters the most.

If you are trying to win and have not had any luck – keep going. You will get there eventually. The hardest won successes are the sweetest.

To the owner who keeps their horse spotlessly clean, neatly trimmed and pulled – marvelous! I applaud your attention to detail. Your horse looks beautiful.

To the owner whose horse is caked in mud and has the odd dread lock here and there – I laugh with you! You know that horses love to roll and if you were to bath your horse today, you would find them in exactly the same mucky state again tomorrow. You know that your horse doesn’t care what they look like at all.

As long as your horse is happy and healthy, what you do with your horse is nobody else’s business. The only time anybody should interfere is if there is a genuine equine welfare issue, an issue regarding your safety or if you have specifically asked for advice or help. Otherwise, please let’s not judge others. ‘Each to their own,’ and ‘good for you!’ are great mottos to live by”.


Enquire, Reflect, Engage & Advocate

The discussions in the current unit of Advanced Equine Behaviour, nay, in the entire course, have been fascinating and incredibly insightful. A statement which holds true for every course I’ve taken with Equine Guelph. While I don’t have a horse of my own, nor am I currently leasing, I do aspire to adopt one within the next year or two, once I’m settled in Ontario.

The truth is, I’m a city girl, living in the heart of Vancouver, so apart from the stables I’ve ridden at in the past few years, I can’t comment too much on prevalent welfare issues in my community, breed, discipline simply because it doesn’t apply. Growing up, my family was very far removed from the world of competitions, performance, disciplines et cetera and simply rode and spent time with our horses because that was our passion. In fact, when first presented with the terms hunter-jumperdressage and hacking a few years ago, I admittedly had to turn to Google to learn what they meant.

At the beginning of the Equine Welfare and Equine Industry courses, students were encouraged to reflect on their experiences with horses, the role(s) we play within the equine industry and our goals for the future. At the end, we were asked to revisit this and note if and how our values, perspectives, and ideas had shifted. I love these reflexive moments and find them to be of tremendous value! They force me to really think about how my understanding of and relationship with horses has changed. The courses I’m taking this term have served to reinforce and build upon things I have learned in the previous 4. It’s been a fascinating, informative journey so far! One that has given me a great deal of knowledge to apply when I finally have a horse of my own. It has also given me insight into the type of role I see myself playing in the industry.

Re-entering the horse world after several years away, taking riding lessons from someone other than my mother for the very first time in my life, at the age of 36, participating in a number of horsemanship classes to brush up on my knowledge and skills, and leasing someone else’s horse, was a series of exciting and sometimes challenging experiences. There were also some eye-opening moments along the way. One of the biggest surprises was how differently the three stables I’ve ridden at are managed. They differ vastly in terms of housing, turn-out, etc. Having observed some clear signs of distress in several horses at one of the stables, I quietly wondered about the rationale behind their management practices. I later learned that these practices, although somewhat foreign to me, are quite common.

Anthropomorphism is also quite prevalent, which, while often harmless, can have some serious welfare implications. Every instructor I’ve had in these past few years (3 in total), as well as my mother, were guilty of saying things like “don’t let the horse get away with that”, “kick him harder”, “make him listen”, “show her who’s boss” – expressions I have come to understand are instances of anthropomorphism and a misunderstanding of why horses perform, or fail to perform, as expected. It’s obvious to me now that timing, consistency, and application of cues is of the utmost importance in training and riding. Something I became more aware of as I began to ride/lease horses that were constantly ridden by different people and exhibited dulled responses and perhaps a degree of learned helplessness resulting from the inconsistent application of cues amongst riders, myself included.

Over the past 14 months, I’ve had the opportunity to dig deeper into a number of issues. Of particular interest have been topics related to shoeing, blanketing, natural horsemanship, anthropomorphism, barrier frustration, imprint training, wobbler syndrome, equitation science, and learning theory. These last two topics are of particular interest to me.

Understanding and incorporating learning theory and the principles of equitation science into all levels of horse training and management has indispensable value for everyone involved in the equine industry, humans and horses alike. With a deeper understanding of equine behaviour, perception and learning processes, we can develop and apply more species-appropriate methods to the management and training of horses. Strides made in recognizing and working within these parameters and understanding the behavioural and health effects of housing and training will undoubtedly improve other areas of horse health and welfare.

My classmates and I are clearly all in agreement that the welfare of the horse should be of the utmost concern to anyone involved in the industry. As has been discussed on numerous occasions in this course over the past 8+ weeks, I find myself wondering once more, how do we influence this and change people’s ingrained and, in their mind’s adequate/justified/appropriate handling and management styles? As has been raised by a classmate, how do we broadcast the importance of proper care to a wider audience in a way that is engaging and effective?

In the next post, I’ll reflect on some of the key things I’ve learned in the Equine Health & Disease Prevention course.