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A horse died on the set of The Rings of Power: more needs to be done to ensure the welfare of horses used in entertainment


The recent death of a horse on the set of Amazon The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is the latest incident to raise questions about how humans use horses for entertainment and sport.

While a statement from producers said the horses’ cardiac arrest occurred before the day’s filming began, animal rights activists PETA used the death to call on all movie producers to replace horses on set with CGI and mechanical rig alternatives.

The incident fuels growing public concern about horse welfare on film and TV sets, on the track and in equestrian sports.

But improving horse welfare is about more than just restoring reputation – too often it’s about survival for horses and people.

Horse welfare in film and TV

Riding a horse over a cliff to his death for the film Jesse James (1939) led to the creation of American humanewhich now oversees approximately 100,000 animals on more than 1,000 productions per year.

Although things have improved since the early days of film and television, deaths and horse abuse still occur.

In 1987, on the set of The man from Snowy River IIa badly wounded horse was killed with the blunt end of an axe.

More recently, the high-profile series Luckstarring Dustin Hoffman, was canceled after the death of three horses.

The good and bad of unprecedented global exposure

In 2021, the Tokyo Olympics beamed to a global audience the outrageous whiplashes and punches of modern pentathlon horse Saint Boy and show jumper Kilkenny’s spectacular nosebleed during the controversial jumping program.

While the bleeding must have been obvious, officials did not intervene to stop the ride.

Confronting images and the perceived failure of the organizers to protect the horses involved brought the indisputable welfare issues facing elite-level horses into clear and global attention.

The worldwide outcry led to actress Kaley Cuoco offers to buy Saint Boy and the withdrawal of the equestrian phase from the modern pentathlon.

Read more: ‘The Rings of Power’: Each adaptation is a reinterpretation, so ignore the haters

Risk to humans and horses

Horse welfare does not only affect animals.

Since the 1840s, 873 jockeys are known died in race falls in Australia.

Internationally, the sport of eventing (where competitors complete three stages: dressage, show jumping, and cross-country) reported 38 rider fatalities and 65 horses during or after competition between 2007-15.

Riding horses is considered one of the most dangerous of all sporting pursuitsand the death of riders and jockeys, usually from falls, is common.

Public concern about risks to horses and people from horse racing and equestrian sports, as well as screen production threaten the social license of these industries.

Better horse welfare is associated with better rider safety

Our research offers hope for the equine industry and for those who are passionate about riding.

Last year we published a paper demonstrate that there is a link between the welfare of horses and the safety of the rider. We asked riders how they care for their horses and how their horses behaved when riding – for example, we wanted to know how often horses buck or rear.

Based on this information, we calculated a relative welfare score for each horse. We also asked riders about their accidents and injuries.

After analyzing the data of more than 400 riders, we found that the higher the horse welfare score, the fewer accidents and injuries a rider reported.

In a later studywe found that horses with better welfare scores are more fun to ride, most likely because they perform better and riders have more control, creating a win-win situation for horse and rider.

Read more: People hate animal cruelty, so why do we do it?

Good horse welfare means more than good health

Good welfare is often thought of in terms of an animal being healthy.

While this is part of good welfare, good health alone is not enough – especially for a horse competing at an elite level or taking part in a movie.

being horses neophobes – this means they find new things scary – so most horses will probably find a film set or a trip to a new location stressful. The most current concept of well-being tells us that stress and poor mental health lead to poor animal welfare.

When a horse is stressed or in pain behave in a very predictable way – they run away, panic, kick or buck and back away.

Still, anecdotally and in the media, people who see a horse this way often claim that the horse is crazy, unpredictable, or just mean.

It is more likely that an “unpredictable” horse is suffering from poor welfare.

As part of our research program, we have a new frame to help horse owners identify aspects of their care and training that reduce horse welfare.

This information can be used to make changes to improve horse welfare, and most importantly, can be applied to horses in any equine industry, including racing, sports, and film and television.

Horses played a vital role in the story of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

Investing in the future of horses in entertainment and sport

While a veterinarian assessed the recent death of a horse on the set of The Rings of Power as “probably unrelated to the horse’s participation in the film,” more could be done to protect horses and the industry.

In Australia, there is no specific standard for the use of animals in filmed media, and each state and territory has different risk management guidelines.

There is now an opportunity for the industry to set a new standard for horse care and training.

An easily implementable first step for the industry could be to insist that a scientifically trained and certified equine behaviorist be involved in the recruitment and supervision of equine actors and their trainers at all stages of production.

This would ensure that horse actors are properly trained to be on set and that horses are trained using the most up-to-date ethical methods.

Equine behavior experts can also help design scenes to minimize equine exposure to stressful situations and identify tasks that are incompatible with proper equine welfare.

If these suggestions were adopted, the film and television industry would set the benchmark for horse welfare – and pressure other equine industries to follow suit.

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