How Do Vegans Feel About Horseback Riding?

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Racing horses have very short lifespans and are treated terribly, but that’s pretty obvious to everyone.

But what about non-racing horses, is it okay to ride them?

That’s what I’ll go over in this post.

While there’s not a full consensus on the topic among vegans, most vegans do not consider it to be an ethical activity.

Ultimately, there’s no need to ride horses other than for personal entertainment, and there’s no benefit to the horse (we’ll talk about 1 potential benefit later). It’s similar in a lot of ways to how vegans feel about catch and release fishing.

I’ll go over the main issues here, as well as arguments advocating that horseback riding is okay, which will hopefully help you form an opinion on the subject.

Is Riding Horses Bad for Their Backs?

horse riding

In a 2007 study, 91.5% of horses (n=295) x-rayed had some sort of spinal injury.

That basically tells us that whatever guidelines are being used to determine who can or can’t ride a horse are not good enough.

Horses are not designed to carry things on their backs, they’re just very large and are capable of doing it if forced to. When you factor in the weight of the rider, plus equipment like saddles, it will take a toll over time.

Is There a Safe Weight for Horses to Carry?

In theory, there’s a safe weight for a rider to be, but I couldn’t find any rigorous scientific evidence of what it is.

That’s mainly because spinal damage can take years to form, so even when a horse doesn’t seem to be in pain, there could be some damage occurring.

If a child or small adult is riding a huge horse, it’s probably not causing damage, but that rarely happens. Instead, children are given smaller horses, and the relative weight likely still causes damage, as the study above showed.

Horse Riding Accessories Cause Pain

Not all this equipment is used every time, but horse riders typically use at least some of the following:

  • Saddles
  • Reins
  • Bits
  • Whips (not too common)
  • Spurs (not too common)

Saddles and reins cause chafing and discomfort at the very least, and can lead to some nasty skin conditions in the worst case.

The biggest issue is the use of bits. These are metal rods forced into a horse’s mouth to make it easier for the rider to maneuver.

horse riding bit

Bits cause immediate pain and long-term damage to the structures inside a horse’s mouth, which includes many cranial nerves.

Side Note: Most Riding Gear is Leather

Since we’re talking about vegans here, it’s only natural to mention that reins and saddles are typically all leather, which is obviously not vegan-friendly.

Most Horses for Riding Are Kept in Poor Conditions

horse running

Horses, like most animals, do enjoy some level of exercise.

But at many horse-riding resorts, boarding facilities, and farms, they’re kept in extremely small pens that allow them little movement.

The only times they get exercise is when people ride them.

Essentially, they’re kept in jail cells until they get some outdoor time (which isn’t particularly enjoyable either).

Do Some Horses Enjoy Giving Horseback Rides?

This is the closest to a “good” argument for horseback riding being okay.

I said initially that horseback riding provided horses with no benefits, that’s why it’s exploitative.

However, some argue that some horses actually enjoy it because they want to exercise.

This seems reasonable at first.

However, most horses would rather either:

  • Run free without a rider
  • Be hand walked (where you don’t ride the horse)

Horses kept in a good environment have access to a decent amount of space, so either of these alternatives are an option.

Furthermore, it’s easy to mistake compliance (i.e. biting the bit quickly) with enjoyment.

Some vegan horse owners provide anecdotal experiences of horses being happier when switching to one of these friendly alternatives.

Summary: Why Vegans Don’t Condone Horse Riding

Horses used for horseback riding are just that – being used. They are treated as a commodity.

Obviously some horse riding places are much worse than others, but even in the best situation it’s still using the horse for entertainment.

This is something that’s hard to accept. Most horse riders really care for their animals and want the best for them, so it’s hard to reconcile the fact that you haven’t been treating them as well as you could be.

So while vegans don’t feel near the same amount of anger (or any negative feeling) about horseback riding as something like hunting, it’s still something that isn’t generally supported.

If you have any other thoughts or think I missed (or are mistaken about) something, feel free to leave a comment alone.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.

1 comment

  • Thank you for the article.

    Horse owners, in the main, love their animals and constantly strive to improve their lives. Many do a combination light riding and groundwork, and while many still compete, I have found that the majority of these horses are very well cared for. While riding is still a contentious issue for many, most riders I know are considering or using bitless bridles, good riders employ light aids and very light hands so as not to injure the horses’ mouths, and many ride in light, faux-leather saddles or bareback or with just a bareback (cloth) pad.

    I cannot speak for the competitive industry, but in non-competitive situations, horses are members of the family, given much love, good veterinary care, good farriery, ridden lightly, and hand-walked or given as much space as possible in pastures to run and play with their herd members. While it varies from facility to facility, most of the barns give horses 8-12 hours at pasture in a 24-hour period in winter, and 14-16 hours outside in summer. Horses are often stalled in extremely high heat or cold, and for rest periods. Some barns give the horses 24/7 pasture time, bringing them in only for feeding, and providing shelter, hay and water in their pastures. Not all barns are equal, and care varies, but owners usually give their horses the best possible care.

    Most horse owners study herd dynamics, and are very considerate caretakers. Horses are living much longer lives, often up to the early-mid forties. This is due to good nutrition, good veterinary and farriery care.

    There will always be grey zones as the horse industry (particularly in competitive areas) generates billions for the U.S. economy, annually. Regulations need to be tighter in many areas, but there are movements toward more ethical care in most disciplines, if slow to change.

    Horses and humans have had a long relationship, and we need to find more ethical ways to interact with this stunning species.

    We have two horses: one 23-year-old that had prior abuse, but has found a kind home; his work comprises fitness work in-hand, longer walks, in-hand on nearby trails, some games, and barely any riding, but only for 15 minutes if that.

    We have one Off-Track-Thoroughbred who only spent 11 months on the track, as he was too slow.
    He was carefully placed in a good home with kind trainers who mostly worked him in-hand.
    He came off the track at age 4; he’s now 12 and has been with us for 8 years. His ‘work’ comprises a little riding (no more than 30 minutes) about twice a week. On all other days, he is hand-walked, plays games and does fitness work or spends 8-10 hours with his herd in very large pastures, at leisure and play.

    We still strive to improve their lives, while keeping them safe for handling and around other people and horses. For their safety, too, we have to encourage quietness and good manners, but this is done with kindness, patience, love and along ethical lines.

    For those who are not usually around horses or working with them daily, you have to ensure that a 1,200 (or more) pound animal is respectful toward his or her human caretaker. With about 100 horses are this barn, they learn the schedule, and are certainly given plenty of free time to live as horses.

    We can all improve. We can all learn to improve in terms of the way we treat other animals — our dogs, cats, birds, and strive to always give them the best possible lives, and to do so with respect, gentleness and patience.