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Saddled with guilt

A reflection and examination of human-horse interactions by Laila El Ayadi

When I was 8 years old I started taking horse riding lessons once a week after school at a local equestrian park with some friends. I loved it instantly and couldn’t wait to go back each week to spend more time with the horses. As my confidence grew, I moved up through the class levels, and started taking lessons on weekends. When I was a bit older I started volunteering on weekends; catching the horses in the morning for the lessons, feeding, grooming, cleaning stables and yards, cleaning tack, assisting riders and other day to day general tasks around the stables and riding arenas. After a few years at the equestrian park my dad introduced me to Ray.

Ray lived on a property in Majors Creek, NSW just outside Braidwood. He competed in Australian endurance horse racing and had a stud farm with stallions, brood mares, competitors and a paddock of yearlings. I would train every weekend with Ray, riding the horses through the Eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range which wasn’t far from his property. It was rough terrain, we would ride the horses along the fire trails, up and down steep hills, over rocky roads, through creeks and winding amongst trees and shrubs. These horses were tough and extremely fit, our training rides would range anywhere from 15 kilometres to 40 kilometres. I started training and competing with the Australian Endurance Rider’s Association (AERA) when I was about 14 years old. I competed in several 40-kilometre races and two 80-kilometre races, placing 2nd on my first 80-kilometre ride.

When we weren’t training or competing I would spend a lot of my time in the paddock with the yearlings. There were about 8 of them, they always ran up to see us and were very inquisitive. As they were only a year old (some even younger) they hadn’t been handled much other than being touched so they were relatively wild. After riding and competing with Ray for a year or so, he decided to gift me with a horse of my own. Legend was my favourite of the yearlings. I had dreamed for years of one day having a horse of my own and this was an incredible gift. Ray offered to “break” Legend in for me, so I could ride her. I would go out to the farm to watch, and in some situations help with “breaking” when Legend was around 2 years old. When I was able to ride her, Ray brought her to Canberra for me to keep her at the local horse paddocks close to where I lived. From the time Legend was “broken” I would ride her as often as I could, I made friends at the paddocks and we would go riding together almost every week. Horses have been an enormous part of my life from a young age. I would spend every waking minute thinking about them, drawing them, reading about them spending time with them and riding them.

However, my whole life revolved around riding horses, not loving them. It was cruelty and exploitation. I was very accustomed to the normalcy of horses being used for entertainment and pleasure. Even though I loved, and still do love, horses, I wasn’t considering the perspective of the horse, instead only imposing my own desires on them. Cognitive dissonance is a too common issue in relation to the use of all non-human animals around the world. Most of us are against animal cruelty. If we saw someone kick a dog on the street we would intervene, but then we continue supporting circuses, zoos, fishing, non-human animals being killed for food and horse riding/racing — to name a few forms of cruelty that most people do not even acknowledge as being cruelty.

In 2013 I went vegan. At first, I hadn’t even considered the idea of horse riding not being consistent with my morals until my husband (boyfriend at the time) pointed out to me that it was a form of exploitation. This got me thinking.

For a long time, I was still conflicted with my decisions regarding horsemanship. Legend never showed any signs of hostility or not wanting to be ridden. Many horses don’t show signs because when horses are “broken” they are trained to obey and become property, often with the threat of violence or abuse if they misbehave. Would you put up a fight if you knew you’d be threatened or physically confronted for doing so? After extensive research and getting in touch with my core values, it is now very clear where I stand with horse riding, and it’s not just a matter of opinion.

In 2007, Matilda Homer and colleagues conducted a study with 295 horses who were considered physically sound before the examination. In this study, x-rays revealed that 91.5% of the horses were diagnosed with alteration on the spinal processes. Almost always, the spinal processes of the caudal saddle position were affected. The most frequent results were diminished internal spaces of spinal processes, including changes of the bone structure of the spinal processes [1].

“Aside from the issue of growth plate fusion, riding a horse at any age causes skeletal damage as well as muscle and tissue. “a horse’s back is not a seat, not a place for a human butt, not a piece of ‘meat’, not some sort of ‘terra firma’. It is a very complex and tender anatomical structure with extraordinary functions. Besides the obvious biomechanical function, the back has another very important function. The spinal cord’s work is to guarantee that the responses from the entire nervous system can communicate the senses of taste, smell, vision, hearing, and vestibular function to the brain, not to get lost in too much detail. on this especially vulnerable, sensitive organ, onto the medulla spinalis, the brain of the back, sits a rider.” — Alexander Nevzorov [2]

Most people start riding when the horses are around 2 and 3 years old, the last plates to fuse are in the vertebral column, which doesn’t happen until the horse is at least five and a half years old and can take longer for taller horses and males. According to the 2002 study by Wissdorf and colleagues, the length of time for complete growth of the epiphyseal plates (cartilage) in the body of the lumbar vertebrae of thoroughbred horses, for example, is not until they are (on average) between 6 and 9 years old [3]. This is a far cry from the 2 year old pushed to their limits for human entertainment. Saddles also restrict blood flow to the arterial capillary bed, which causes tissue damage, as well as chafing and discomfort.

“There is a saying that a horse is ready to ride when their “knees close.” This refers to waiting until the growth plates just above the knee convert from cartilage to bone. What people often don’t realize is that there is a “growth plate” on either end of every bone behind the skull, and in the case of some bones (like the pelvis or vertebrae, which have many ‘corners’) there are multiple growth plates.” — Dr. Deb Bennet [4]

Other injuries to the legs, joints, muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments are common, along with psychological damage that horses can suffer from stressful and traumatic experiences such as horse racing, endurance, polo, show jumping and spending long periods of time locked away in stables and travelling. Horses are social creatures, usually spending much of their life in close family groups. To be isolated for much of their life and moved around is incredibly traumatic for them.

But nothing is quite as cruel as the use of bits and whips. Bits cause pain and damage to a horse’s complex cranial nerves, as well as to their teeth, tongue, and palate. Facial nerves are extremely close to the skin and thus extremely sensitive. It is essential to understand that there is absolutely no way to use a bit without the horse feeling pain.

Life expectancy for horses that are exploited is much shorter than their natural lifespan due to long term injuries, arthritis, acute riding trauma and other health issues.Thoroughbreds destined for racing are lucky to live past 3 years old. They are deemed “useless” to the racing industry due to them developing serious illness or injury before they are even one-tenth the way through their potential lifespan. There are also the thoroughbreds intended for racing that don’t even make it to the track. They end up at the “knackery” to be slaughtered for dog food, purely because they were too slow, or sustained an injury that prematurely ended their ‘career’. Horses can live to be 25–30 years old, tragically so many of them in entertainment have their lives ended before reaching the age of 5.

Not many people think of horse riding as cruel, exploitative or oppressive, including some vegans. I was one of these people for a while until I was exposed to the facts and evidence, just as I did when making the decision to become vegan. While there are people out there that believe horses need to be ridden as a form of exercise and companionship, this is not the only way to enjoy a horse as a companion and exercise them. Horses do not exist so we can ride them. Just because we can, and because we desire to, does not mean we have the right to. We do not have the right to exploit any non-human animal for anything.

Think about being in the horse’s position, would you like someone to strap a saddle to your back that is tied tightly around your stomach, have a hard-cold piece of metal in your mouth which is tugged “controlling” and dictating where you go and when you stop, while carrying the weight of someone around for hours? If we love horses then shouldn’t we focus on building relationships based on respect and equality, not compliance?

“But my horse loves being ridden” is something I hear people say too often. It may seem a lot of horse’s “love” being ridden by their content and compliant behaviour, but that is attributed to the “breaking” and a state of learned helplessness. Legend and I have a stronger relationship and bond since I stopped riding her, and we enjoy each other’s company in other ways. We like hanging out in the paddock, sharing carrots, grooming, talking and on occasion, going for walks.

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Non-human animals cannot give their consent and we should not be exploiting them by making assumptions about what it is we think they want. We base this off our selfish desires, believing it is acceptable because it’s “normal” and “tradition” but throughout history humans have done things within our own species that were “acceptable” at the time, but we now consider these things inhumane, barbaric and abhorrent. One day we will look back on the way we treat non-human animals with shame and remorse.

Take action:

Evaluate your own actions and behaviours towards non-human animals.

Sign a petition to end industrialised exploitation of horses for entertainment in Canberra, or start one in your local area.


  1. Holmer, M., Wollanke, B. and Stodtbaeumer, G., 2007. X-ray alterations on spinal processes of 295 warmblood horses without clinical findings. Pferdeheilkunde, 23(5), pp.507–511.
  2. Nevzorov, A., 2011. The horse crucified and risen. Nevzorov Haute Ecole.
  3. Wissdorf, H., Gerhards, H., Huskamp, B. and Deegen, E., 2010. Practical anatomy and propaedeutic of the horse. Practical anatomy and propaedeutic of the horse., (Ed. 3).
  4. Bennett, D. (2008). Timing and rate of skeletal maturation in horses: With comments of starting young horses and the state of the industry.

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