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Horse in Tourism or Riding Holidays

The Condition of Horses In Tourism

by Wendy Hofstee BVSC, MRCVS, FRGS

I believe that the condidtion of horses used in tourism internationally is a very big issue. The number of horses involved runs into millions. Consider: horse drawn transport, pack animals as well as riding horses, mules and donkeys.
The vast majority of tourists who utilize horses on holiday do not prebook this through a specialist operator but impulsively while on holiday. They are often not regular riders and have no idea of what constitutes a horse in an acceptable condition.

In poor countries there is very little spare money for horse care although a horse may be the only source of income for an already very poor person or family. Thus horses are often used in conditions unacceptable by western standards, not out of cruelty, but out of desperation or ignorance. Where this is combined with an uncritical or uncaring tourist the result is cruelty.

By using only horses in an acceptable condition and paying well (above the local rate) for horses in good condition, tourists will be voting with their money for an improvement in the condition of hroses. There is no way a starving man can afford veterinary treatment for his horse. On the other hand if the same horse, when well fed and cared for, can bring in a higher than average income, the attention given to the horse is dramatically improved.

I and Unicorn Trails, the company I founded, believe it is the repsonsibility of tourists to inform themselves of acceptable standards before travelling. As a veterinary surgeon with wide equine, travel and third world tourism experience, I have written an 8 page leaflet "tourism horse condition check" which can be ordered FOC from Unicorn Trails or read and copied here. I urge anyone who thinks they may ride abroad to read this and take along a copy.

Where possible it is best to book any horse riding through a responsible specialist operator like Unicorn Trails. As well as vetting the condition of horses on their trips, Unicorn Trails actively works the improvement of local communities and horse condition - those two go hand in hand. Community tourism and education of locals and, most importantly tourists, is key to improving the condition of local horses. To read more about community tourism and how it works click here.




Many people are introduced to the magic of horseback riding on holiday. There are millions of horses who work in the tourist industry worldwide. Most horses are very well and even lovingly looked after. However sometimes you may be offered a horse to ride that is in an unacceptable health or whose equipment is ill fitting or dangerous. Of course you may not be an expert on horses or riding and would naturally assume that the guide or horse owner knows best. They may however not be aware of the expectations you have of animal welfare and safety. This is a very brief guide to the most basic elements of welfare and safety you should consider before getting on a horse anywhere. It is simple, does not take a minute and your extra interest will be much appreciated by good horse owners who may well be fascinated by your perspective!


  1. your safety
  2. the welfare of the horse
  3. improvement of both the above where it falls short, refer owners to local charities such as the Brooke Animal Hospital or local SPCA where training and veterinary advice is available
  4. reward good and careful owners with your business. This provides positive reinforcement that good animal welfare makes economic sense.


  1. Normal Demeanour and Behaviour
    When a horse is comfortable it should stand quietly, be alert when given commands and respond willingly and quietly.
    It is normal for a resting horse to take the weight off each back leg in turn, but resting a front leg is normally a sign of pain in that leg.
    Horses normally lie down for only about 20 minutes each day to sleep and a horse lying down in a work situation is abnormal.
    Extreme reluctance to move forward and/or abnormal/staggering/limpimg gaits or falling over are signs of trouble.
    Other signs of discomfort are exaggerated to response to pressure or pulling on equipment, rearing up, trying to run off. You should be able to pull the reins gently (as you would restrain a baby) and be able to put your full weight on the stirrup/s, saddle and back of the horse without signs of discomfort.

  2. Condition of the horse
     When is a horse too thin? Body scoring is the best way to asses the condition of a horse. Please see below. A body score of  2 to 4 is acceptable.

  3. Grooming and cleanliness – Of course it is preferable for the horse to be shiny and clean but mud or dusty coats is not necessarily a welfare problem as long as the dirt does not lead to wounds or skin diseases. Breaks in the skin and signs of inflammation (swelling, heat and pain) are not acceptable.

  4. Shoes – it is not necessary for horses to be shod especially if they are working on a soft surface such as sandy ground. Limping on rough or stony ground is a sure sign shoes are needed. When shod it is normal for a horse to have either only the two front feet shod or all four feet shod. Three shoes are a problem!

  5. Equipment
    No matter what the type saddles and bridles should:
    1. fit well and not cause injury or pain
    2. be strong and not break while in use.
      The bridle straps and bits should fit snugly but not tightly without leaving any rub marks or wounds on the skin or lips, the horse should be comfortable and respond to commands without showing signs of pain (throwing head, rearing up, trying to run away). The saddle should be firmly secured under the belly with a strong strap (girth) - check this is in good condition, tight enough to hold your weight when getting on and not to slip back when riding uphill and does not cause rubbing or wounds. The weight of the saddle should rest on the large muscles on either side of the spine and not press on the backbone or spine of the horse. The stirrups should be big enough for you to slide your foot out of freely but small enough to prevent your entire foot sliding through. The stirrup straps must be strong and undamaged so there is no danger of them breaking when you put your full weight on them.

  6. Visible wounds
    You should not ride horses with visible wounds under or around any equipment or straps i.e. the saddle and girth (strap holding the saddle on) or bridle. Ask to see the horse with the saddle removed before riding – some of the most distressing wounds for animals are caused by ill fitting equipment and are hidden under saddles or blankets. Any wounds causing stiffness, lameness or abnormal movement or discomfort should lead you to walk away.
  7. Load
    Consider your own weight before riding a horse or donkey, and match your size to the size and strength of the animal. Do not ride with more than one person on the back of a horse or donkey

  8. Horse drawn transport
    Do not overload a horse-drawn carriage - two people is sufficient (four for a carriage in Egypt)
    If the owner persuades you to overload the carriage, please walk away. You can always choose another horse or donkey that is in better condition.

  9. Money
    Please do not undercut the prices but rather be prepared to pay more than the going rate for horses in good condition. If you see a hrose in better condition than the others, choose taht one and tell the owner why you have chosen him.

  10. General
    Do not whip, beat or ride an animal aggressively. If the owner is treating the animal badly - riding it hard, whipping - we urge you to refuse to use his animal, and tell him why


The above guidelines are very basic and by no means an exhaustive guide to horse welfare, rather they represent minimum standards. Should a horse or the equipment fall short, do not be persuaded to ride or use the animal for transport, instead explain why you will not use them and offer to put the owner in touch with a local charity such as the Brooke Animal Hospital or SPCA who can explain your point in more technical detail and offer practical help to resolve problems.

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is an objective system of evaluating a horse's level of body condition (amount of stored fat) and assessing a numeric score to facilitate comparisons between horses. Many people fail to recognize significant variations in the weight of horses or variations due to age and breed types.

Figure 1. Diagram of Areas Emphasized in Condition Score (Adapted from Henneke 1981, Texas A&M)

Body condition scoring involves the feeling and visual assessment of the degrees of fatness of various areas of the horse, such as: over the ribs, tailhead area, neck and withers, and behind the shoulders. (See Figure 1.) Fat reserves in these areas depend on the balance between energy intake and energy loss, for various activities.
If there is a negative energy balance (energy loss greater than energy intake), then weight, and subsequent body condition, will be lost. This energy balance depends on such factors as: availability of food and water, weather (e.g., ambient temperature and wind chill), reproductive activity (e.g., pregnancy, lactation) and physical activity demands for growth and health status. A positive energy balance (energy expenditure less than energy intake) will result in a horse adding fat and muscle and improving body condition.
Figure 2 shows the profile lines for the various body condition scores. The profile of BCS 0 and 1 follow the anatomical skeleton and describe stages of emaciation and extremely thin respectively. A score of 3 has a smooth appearance to the skeletal structure and represents a horse in optimum body condition for maintenance and is neither gaining nor losing weight. Horses scoring 3+ to 4 have a rounded appearance to their skeletal structure. They are in above average flesh but this should not impair their reproductive ability, especially if they are being maintained in outdoor housing during the winter.
A long hair coat can be misleading. Some conformational differences make it difficult to apply certain criteria to a specific animal. For example, animals with prominent withers, or flat across the back and mares heavy in foal (weight of the foal pulls skin taut over the ribs) may cause body condition scores to be lower than they actually are. However, when properly applied, the scoring system is independent of size or conformation of the horse.

Figure 2. Lumbar Vertebra-Anterior View Indicating Profile Lines for Each Body Condition Score

Figure 3. Body Condition Scoring (adapted from Carroll C.L. and Huntington P.J., Body Condition Scoring and Weight Estimation of Horses)

A chart showing the body conditions of horses from Score 0 (poor) to Score 5 (fat)

When evaluating animals, there will be an animal-to-animal variation; thus the use of the terms "easy-keeper" and "hard-keeper". Easy-keepers include any of the individuals of the draft breeds, ponies and quarter horses. They also include the dominant animals in a herd situation. Hard-keepers include many of the individuals of the following breeds: Arabian, thoroughbred and gaited horses. Hard-keepers will also include the shy individuals who are lower on the pecking order in a herd situation. Table 1 summarizes the various body condition scores, while Figure 3 depicts the changes in body appearance.

Table 1. Descriptions of Anatomical Differences Between Body Condition Scores




Back & Loin 


 Hind Quarters

 0 Very thin

bone structure easily felt- no muscle shelf where neck meets shoulder

bone structure easily felt

3 points of vertebrae easily felt (see Figure 2)

each rib can be easily felt

tailhead and hip bones projecting

 1 Thin

can feel bone structure- slight shelf where neck meets shoulder

can feel bone structure

spinous process can be easily felt
- transverse processes have slight fat covering

slight fat covering, but can still be felt

can feel hip bones

 2 Fair

fat covering over bone structure

fat deposits over withers  

dependent on conformation

fat over spinous processes can't see ribs, but ribs can still be felt

hip bones covered with fat

 3 Good

neck flows smoothly into shoulder

neck rounds out withers

back is level

layer of fat over ribs

can't feel hip bones

 4 Fat

fat deposited along neck

fat padded around withers

positive crease along back

 fat spongy over and between ribs

can't feel hip bones

 5 Very fat

bulging fat

bulging fat

deep positive crease

pockets of fat

pockets of fat

As a guide to learning the scoring system and interpreting the results, examples of "typical" condition scores are listed below. There will be a range of condition within each score so it is sometimes convenient to assign +'s and -'s or half point scores as in 2.5 or 3.5.

 Score 0


- with sunken rump and deep cavity under tail, skin tight over ribs; e.g., severely debilitated older horses with abnormal teeth occlusion, starvation.

 Score 1.0


- very thin with prominent pelvis and croup, ribs visible

 Score 2.0


- thin with flat rump, croup well defined, some fat; e.g., mare that has been severely dragged down by milking while on poor pasture.

 Score 2.5


- e.g., racing condition or endurance horse.

 Score 3.0


- ribs and pelvis covered with fat and rounded; e.g., a halter horse in prime show condition.

 Score 3.5


- e.g., mature mare in mid-gestation.

 Score 4.0


- fat covering ribs and pelvis requiring firm pressure to feel; e.g., an easy-keeping, mature horse on pasture with little or no work.

 Score 5.0

 Very Fat

- severe over condition with ribs and pelvis that cannot be felt, deep gutter in back; e.g., a fat pony prone to founder (laminitis).