For both of us (Kristina Gau Hiltbrunner and Fenja Königsmann) a lot has changed in the last couple weeks and months. We are both still surprised about everything that has happened recently. Kristina has already published two critical articles about riding on her blog and gave a talk about riding in intervals in the past. For her, our sunday-conversation changed everything. In the following we would like to share our insights and thoughts with you. Videos: Riding part 1 (German): Does riding harm the horse? Riding part 2 (German): Should we stop riding? Riding English Version: Should we stop riding our horses?
At this point I have been riding for a good 25 years. I consider myself to be one of the brave riders, I have no fear whatsoever of mounting a horse. I have ridden dressage and jumping, was a western rider and a mounted archer. I have done many trail rides and trail courses as well as various competitions and educated myself further about different riding styles. I have owned and ridden various breeds of horses as well as ridden and trained the horses of my clients. So, in summary, riding has been a big part of my life. I love the feeling, the power, the lightness.
In the last couple months I had only been riding in short intervals to protect the horses backs and to avoid excessive strain. In reality, I had all the knowledge right in front of me. But, like most horse people, I wanted to create the best possible conditions for the horse so that I got to ride it. In my article „Is riding harmful to the horse“ I mentioned information about the pressure on the tissue. This was one of the reasons for riding in intervals. But I have to admit that I did not look at the numbers closely enough.
For 18 years now, horses have been a big and important part of my life. I have loved riding my whole life and was often the one who got handed the more ‘difficult’ cases, as I was one of the brave riders at the time, just like Kristina. I also rode dressage and show jumping, went on many trail rides and led them in larger groups as a supervisor/teacher. I loved riding – the feeling of moving together with this big, strong being was amazing. I would never have expected to turn away from riding at some point; it was far too important for me. In 2014 I got the first horse of my own; a mare named Garzi. She opened up whole new worlds for me and completely turned my riding life upside down. In the beginning I worked with her in a very traditional way and didn’t think anything of it. My goal was to get better and become more advanced. Garzi had very different ideas, which she made increasingly obvious to me in the first 2 years. At that time, it was very frustrating for me and I looked everywhere for answers, except where I should have looked. I had physiotherapists, osteopaths, saddle fitters, chiropractors and veterinarians there to find out what was wrong with my mare so that I could finally pursue my goals. For a short period of time it often got a little better, but nothing helped in the long run until I finally started to really listen to Garzi and not continue to look for the answers elsewhere. She was the one who, step by step, day by day, put me on a completely different path. Over time this path evolved into a much more peaceful, gentle way with horses, where honest communication at eye level is the top priority. Until mid-2019 this had still included riding from time to time, but the more I learned to understand Garzi’s language, the less I rode – it just didn’t feel right anymore. At that time, I didn’t have the numbers to back up my decision to stop riding with facts. A few weeks ago, I wasn’t sure if riding, set up somewhat differently, might become part of my life again. Kristina’s and my research made it inevitable that I would completely eliminate riding from my life.
During and after our first conversation we started to do even more research. And we discovered that all horse professionals, veterinarians and scientists were following the same approach as we had: protect the horse from unnecessary damage. We thought for a long time that if we followed the advice of well-known trainers and horse specialists, we would be more likely to help our horses and keep them healthy by riding them. But it was precisely these scientific studies that fundamentally changed our opinions about riding.
The Swiss Back Study
In this extensive study, which was published in 2019, the back health of ridden horses in Switzerland was analyzed. 248 horses participated in this study.
33% of the study horses show symptoms of back pain
32%-52% of the horses (depending on the localisation, cervical spine, BWS, LWS, ISG) have radiological and/or ultrasonographic diagnostic evidence
40% of the horses are clearly lame
90% of saddles show 1 or more problems during the saddle inspection
Or more specifically:
Vertebral joint arthrosis: Cervical: 52% of horses with grade ≥ 2 !
thoracic spine, lumbar spine: 38% of the horses ≥ grade 2
Kissing spines: 45% of horses ≥ Grade 2
VChanges in the sacroiliac joint: 32% of horses ≥ grade 2
It could not be directly proven that pain is linked to rideability problems. This matches our own observations. And although there were also clinically healthy horses, these are shocking results. When Kristina read the study last year, she thought it didn’t affect her or her horse, even though she met him at the age of nine with obvious back problems. But she was convinced that she could give him the best possible support while riding him. Over time his back became stronger and he healed mentally to a certain extent. Fenja had also heard about several studies, but she did not feel responsible to change anything about it herself. A summary of the study can be read in this document: PDF of the Bern University of Applied Sciences BFH Here is another study on the spine:„Of the 295 horses examined, 25 horses (8.5%) had no defects of the spinous processes that deviated from the norm. All 25 horses belonged to the group of young horses (group A). The remaining 270 horses (91.5 %) showed radiological deviations from the norm at the spinous processes. The most occurring changes were in the area of the caudal saddle position (Th12 to Th18).“ Study: X-ray alterations on spinal processes of 295 warmblood horses without clinical findings
The tissue and muscles of the horse’s back
The following information was THE determining factor for us that everyone should at least think about and question riding our horses. We do not criticize anyone who has not come to this point yet. It is a process and a journey that everyone has to follow at their own pace. To begin, it must be said that the data from the different studies are not always entirely comparable. In addition, larger pressure areas are sometimes mentioned, which leave room for more or less interpretation. Our aim was to look at as many different studies as possible and then put the results into context. Results of studies on dogs, pigs and humans showed that at pressures of 0.99-1.99 Psi (0.07-0.14 kg/cm²; 70-140 g/cm²) blood circulation is completely restricted. This complete obstruction is only prevented in the horse, by continuous movement, even at higher levels of pressure. (Source: