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Is Horse Riding Cruel? Is Horse Riding Vegan? The Real Truth

Is Horse Riding Cruel? Is Horse Riding Vegan? The Real Truth

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The debate surrounding horse riding is multifaceted, with opinions fueled by both ethical and philosophical considerations. Central to this discourse are questions about the potential cruelty of horse riding and whether the practice aligns with vegan principles.

As the consciousness towards animal rights and welfare grows, these questions have gained unprecedented attention.

To delve into this subject requires us to understand the nuances of horse-human relationships, the physical impact of riding on horses, and the principles underpinning the vegan lifestyle.

Join us as we unpack these complex issues, seeking a clearer understanding of where horse riding stands in the broader context of animal welfare and ethical living.

Is Horse Riding Cruel?

Horse riding is not cruel if it is done or supervised by an experienced rider who puts the horse’s needs first. There are many aspects to making sure riding remains cruelty-free for horses and it takes several years to develop a correct approach.

If we are not careful and pay attention to every detail of our horses’ care, health and behavior, then horse riding can easily become cruel. Inexperienced riders must always be supervised by a hardened equestrian or professional who can provide constructive guidance about how to properly care for and ride horses.

In this article, we explore several ethical issues related to horse riding and discuss possible ways to improve our current practices.

As this might be a sensitive topic for certain readers, we encourage everyone to keep an open mind and think about issues from various perspectives.

Do Horses Like Being Ridden?

Do you sometimes find yourself wondering whether your horse enjoys riding as much as you do? While it might seem that way at times, we must consider the horse’s nature and point of view when answering this question.

It is hard to tell whether horses like being ridden as they can’t voice their opinion. While some horses clearly enjoy the activity, many of them only tolerate being ridden.

Woman riding a horse in the countryside
Alexia Khruscheva /

Let’s face the facts; horses have been around for 55 million years, and only spent 6,000 years as our companions. They didn’t evolve to carry humans on their backs, they look the way they do because of their diet and natural habitat. The horse’s back actually evolved to support the heavy digestive system required for surviving on fibrous grass.

While this might be difficult to process if you are convinced that your horse loves being ridden, don’t worry. So far, there haven’t been big enough studies conducted to disprove your statement. All we can do at this point is speculate using our available knowledge.

Besides, plenty of people argue that if horses didn’t like being ridden, they would let us know. And some horses do exactly that. They buck, rear, kick out or bolt until you are on the ground.

Does Horse Riding Hurt The Horse?

Horse riding doesn’t hurt horses, if done correctly. However, horses can feel pain while riding without us even realizing it. Always make sure your horse is completely healthy and all tack fits correctly before riding.

It is often difficult to tell whether your horse is in pain during riding. Horses evolved to hide their pain and suffer in silence so they don’t fall victim to predators in the wild. Often when your horse does act out, the problem might be bigger than it first appears.

You must either be a knowledgeable equestrian or know your horse very well to notice the early signs of pain. Various scientific studies have shown that when a horse is “behaving badly”, he may actually be in pain.

Naturally, many riders and trainers will misinterpret this behavior as the horse being stubborn or not wanting to work. Hence why it’s important to rule out any potential medical issues before we declare that our horse has a behavioral problem.

Common reasons why your horse might feel pain while riding include back or leg problems, arthritis, poorly fitting tack or an oversized rider. As a rule of thumb, horses can safely carry up to 20% of their body weight. This means that a horse weighing 1,000 pounds (453.6 kg) can carry a person weighing 200 pounds (90.7 kg) without feeling pain.

Is Horse Riding Vegan?

Generally, veganism stands against the use of animals for the personal gain of humans. So if we take an objective approach, is horse riding vegan?

Whether or not horse riding is vegan is a controversial topic. Some vegans believe that it is never ethical to ride a horse, as it is a form of animal exploitation. Others believe that it is possible to ride horses in a way that is ethical, as long as the horse is treated with respect and care.

Additionally, horse riders usually use leather equipment which would be difficult and unsafe to replace with a synthetic alternative.

If we look at horses in the wild, it’s clear that they can live a full life without humans ever sitting on top of them. Unfortunately, horse riding only benefits the rider which is why it cannot be vegan.

Young woman riding sportive dressage horse in summer fields
horsemen /

Furthermore, although vegan saddles have hit the market, they will never be as durable, safe and comfortable for both horse and rider as the leather versions.

While horse riding cannot be classed as vegan, many vegans ride horses. They claim that the sport is not exploitative of the animal if it doesn’t cause pain and suffering.

Even though horses cannot consent to being ridden, if they are treated with respect and kindness it can become an enjoyable activity for both.

Is it ethical to ride a horse?

By definition, ethics deals with the moral principles that cause a person to do something or behave a certain way. There have been many arguments for and against horse riding being ethical, and here’s our view.

It is ethical to ride a horse if the rider takes into account the horse’s physical and mental well-being. If the horse is forced into doing something he’s not prepared or physically able to do, then horse riding becomes unethical.

Horse riding is only ethical as long as riders do what’s best for their horses. This includes all aspects of care, constantly improving as a rider, and not rushing the horse into doing something he clearly doesn’t want to do. As a writer said on LJC Press, Horses have bad days, too. We have to respect that.”

Other perspectives

Let’s look at what a major animal rights organization has to say about horse riding. PETA is short for “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” and is an organization based in Norfolk, Virginia. According to their website, they have 6.5 million followers and go by the motto “Animals are not ours to experiment on, eat, wear, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.”

PETA thinks that horses should be allowed to live their lives without humans making demands for them. Their reasoning is that horses cannot control whether we ride them or not and benefit little from the activity.

Dr. Jones, a speaker at the fifth Equitation Science Annual Conference at the University of Sydney, called for stricter measures regarding the welfare of horses. In his opinion, the welfare impacts of horse riding must be minimized if we want it to be ethically sustainable.

“Many of the activities embedded in traditional training, riding or competing can have serious adverse impacts on horse welfare.” Dr. Jones said. Therefore, More objective regulations are needed for international competitions and keeping horses for leisure.

4 Reasons why riding is good for horses

After discussing the controversies of horse riding, in what ways does the sport actually benefit horses? Luckily, there are several reasons why riding is good for horses.

1. It is a good form of exercise

Horse riding is certainly great for building a horse’s muscle strength and agility. By becoming fitter, the horse has a lower chance of straining or injuring himself on the field. It is also an excellent opportunity for energetic horses to release their built-up energy.

2. It can provide enjoyment

While we can never truly prove this, some horses do seem to enjoy performing certain exercises or tasks under saddle. Everyone has watched videos of jumping horses fishing the course on competitions after the rider has already fallen off.

Horses with so-called “cow sense” are another great example as they thoroughly enjoy herding cattle on the range.

3. It is a form of enrichment

Domestic horses will never be able to live a completely natural life as their wild cousins once did. Even though we cannot offer them a free life with infinite pastures, horse riding is a way to enrich their lives. It physically and mentally stimulates horses, which is very important for animals living in captivity.

4. Horses get food, shelter and protection in return

Like other domesticated animals, horses have a lot to gain from their relationship with humans. We provide them with food, water, shelter from the elements and protection from predators, diseases and injury. In other words, horses can live longer and healthier lives in captivity, without having to struggle daily for survival.

Horse riding was one of the main reasons why humans domesticated horses in the first place. Think about it; if horse riding didn’t exist, there would likely be far fewer horses left in today’s world.

We no longer need them to pull goods or agricultural equipment, so it’s the only thing stopping horses from becoming display animals in zoos.

As Dr. Jones said, “Horses are the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry. In Australia, their use in racing alone generates around $A4 billion a year and is inextricably linked with gambling and through taxation revenue to government funding.”

In a nutshell, we need the profits from equestrian sports to continue having horses as part of our daily lives.

8 Tips For Pain-Free Riding

It is absolutely possible to ride horses without causing them pain. However, we must be thorough in our approach and pay attention to a number of different factors. Below, we summarized some key points to remember if you want to make riding pain-free for your horse.

1. Take time to warm up your horse

This is an essential element for pain-free riding. When the horse begins to exercise, the connective tissue that contains and separates the horse’s muscles called the myofascia is cold and stiff.

It’s important to warm up and loosen this structure so your horse can carry you without discomfort and risk of injury.

Young woman stroking her horse
Lyubov Levitskaya /

If you’re planning to ride for an hour, dedicate at least 10 minutes to warm-up and another 10 to cool down at the end. This means maintaining a medium-speed walk with long reins for that time. If the work you’re about to do is especially demanding, take extra time to warm up and cool down in walk and trot.

Even better, begin warming up by walking your horse on the lead or lunging him without a rider’s weight. If you’re lucky and your barn has a horse walker, then be sure to take advantage of it regularly.

2. If you are a beginner, ask for supervision

If you’ve only been around horses for a couple of years, even if you think you know enough, it’s best to ask for regular advice. Experience is priceless in the equestrian world, and it only comes with years of riding and training a variety of horses.

Inexperienced riders will often fall into the trap of learning things at the expense of their horses. With appropriate supervision, the horse can be spared of issues such as overexertion, musculoskeletal damage and developing fear or anxiety.

It’s a really good idea to educate yourself from reliable sources about riding and caring for horses before you do it in real life.

3. Clean your horse’s hooves frequently

We can’t stress this enough. All it takes is a tiny little pebble stuck in a groove and pushing up into your horse’s hoof for serious lameness to develop.

Even if you don’t ride your horse every day, his hooves should be cleaned on a daily basis. When you do ride, clean your horse’s hooves after he comes in from the paddock and before he goes back out.

Even if your horse is stabled, removing manure and straw from his hooves maintains their hygiene and helps you spot problems early.

4. Have regular vet, farrier and dentist visits

Making sure your horse is fully healthy goes a long way towards ensuring pain-free riding. The vet should see your horse at least a few times a year when his vaccinations are due and for a complete health checkup. Similarly, the dentist should check your horse’s teeth and mouth once or twice a year.

For horses that wear shoes, farrier visits can vary between 4-6 weeks. If you ride your horse barefoot, regular farrier visits help maintain the quality of the hooves and spot problems early.

In addition, consider calling your equine chiropractor, physio or massage therapist if you suspect your horse has musculoskeletal issues.

5. Don’t ride horses that are too young

In the racing industry, it’s common practice to start riding colts and fillies at the age of two. Meanwhile, for most other purposes horses are routinely broken in at the age of three. While this is what most horse riders are familiar with, that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

According to Dr. Bennet, Ph.D., the horse’s back doesn’t mature until the animal is five and a half years old. Similarly, a 2002 study featured in the book Practical Anatomy and Propaedeutic of the Horse has shown that the growth plates of the lumbar vertebrae in Thoroughbred horses don’t complete until they are 6 to 9 years old.

Recently, it has become more commonplace to break horses in at the age of 4, which is much closer to the time their backs mature. If you want to start your young horse the right way, allow an extra year before beginning ridden work.

6. Maintain your own fitness

Getting in shape and developing good balance are some of the best ways to help your horse carry you. Unfit riders will inadvertently put additional strain on their horses which can lead to serious problems.

We always expect a high level of fitness from our horses, so why shouldn’t we do the same?

7. Don’t use unnecessary training gadgets

Training aids such as side reins or martingales are only meant to be used for a short time and abandoned as soon as the horse improves. Some equestrians claim they do more harm than good as they encourage the horse to work against the equipment.

Either way, try to keep the number of training gadgets you use to a minimum. A proficient rider should be able to ride his/her horse to a high standard without using a whip, spurs or additional straps.

8. Fulfill your horse’s natural needs

In the wild, horses thrive in a herd environment roaming wide-open spaces with ad libitum forage and water.

To achieve good welfare in captivity, we must replicate their natural setting as much as possible. Plenty of turnout and the opportunity to graze in the company of friends are essential to any horse’s well-being.

Remember that this list is far from exhaustive. Entire volumes could be written about the ways to make sure our horses have the best possible time while riding. Nevertheless, the above points are a good place to start.

Do you have any useful tips you would like to share with others? Let us know in the comments below!

Chris Maycock

Sunday 19th of June 2022

It is utterly self-centred and harmful to the animal itself, to believe you have the right to coerce and force a horse to carry you around like it is your slave, your plaything. It is not ethical; Riding on the backs of animals is cruel and selfish. Horses are herd animals—they naturally live together in large groups, graze together in meadows, and roam all around. In general, they spend up to 23 hours a day in a stall and are always being dragged around to different place so the "owner" get force the horse to bear their weight in their backs.


Monday 7th of March 2022

I agree 100% with this article. Keeping horses is about what is best for them. So long as horse are safe, comfortable, and pain free, there should be no ill effects to them. And Phoenix, I don't believe the equestrian community supports hurting horses. Almost all who care for horses want their animals to be healthy and happy.


Monday 3rd of January 2022

wrong. It isn't vegan or ethical or not animal abuse. Same as all pets. this is forced to be their life they can't make their own choice and doing all this is exploiting them sorry but you are wrong and still an animal abuser.


Saturday 8th of January 2022

@panda, and even if they aren’t the ones doing the abuse, they’re still SUPPORTING these people who house and have trained these horses to be obedient. They’re supporting the idea of domestication as a whole, as well. Aspects of training horses ARE abusive! So, the act of supporting this by accessing the product of said training(by riding the horses), is in and of itself is in a way, abusice.

Henrietta Szathmary

Thursday 6th of January 2022

Hi panda,

Thank you for your comment. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, however, you might find it interesting that horses have chosen to live with humans instead of the wild on several occasions. Monty Roberts' book "Shy Boy" documents such an event. Monty captured and backed a Mustang from the wild and gave him the best care he knows. He then released the horse to see if he would be happier living in the wild, and the horse soon returned to his ranch. He chose Monty's protection and care over having to fight for survival in the wild.

That's not to say all horses would make the same choice. I just wanted to offer you a different perspective to consider 🙂