The Denial of Horse Abuse – A Call for Responsibility, Compassion and Mindful Action
Denial is the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something. And it often happens in close connection with all forms of abuse where it goes hand in hand with minimising, rationalising and distracting from what is happening. This is no different when it comes to animals and, in this case, horses.
We all know or have heard about abuse that happens behind closed doors. But what if it happens in public, in front of our eyes for everybody to see. And those involved and in charge when confronted with it, instead of taking responsibility and cleaning up their act, deny and play it down and marginalise and meet those who speak up with ridicule.
I try to keep my contributions positive and educational in relation to possibilities to change and improve our relationships with horses and to make things better for the horses in our care. Because, in the end, what are most of us in it for: the connection and the love for horses together with the joy and satisfaction they bring despite all the hard work involved. My own focus lies on understanding equine behaviour and applying this understanding into practice; the importance of considering anatomy and biomechanics and their development when training and riding horses whatever discipline you are in – which is linked with the teachings to be found in classical dressage; the softer aspects such as feel, intuition, body awareness, presence, energy and mindfulness in our connections and relationships; creating an overall positive (learning) environment for humans and horses where they can thrive with joy.
However, there are times where you have to speak up and say something about the ugly things. During the past two weeks, a few cases of horse abuse in the context of international competition came to the spotlight of public attention, thanks to the journalists involved. And what concerns and worries me the most is that all these cases were met with denial and played down by the parties involved and in charge.
It was about two weeks ago that I came about the headline ‚The blood rule has to change’. The background to this: An Olympic gold medalist rider was disqualified from a show jumping event after traces of blood were found on the flanks of his horse.
The FEI rule on this matter is very clear: Horses bleeding on the flank(s), in the mouth or nose or marks indicating excessive use of spurs or of the whip anywhere on the horse result in a mandatory disqualification (Article 242.3.1 of the FEI Jumping Rules).
That the use of spurs in this sport results in a horse being injured is bad enough from a welfare perspective. But even more troubling were the reactions of the people involved. No responsibility was taken; instead there was an outcry by several people about how unfair the decision was and it was played down as something minor including statements and calls for the rule to change accompanied by dramatic declarations about being an ultimate animal-lover.
In the meantime, you can find the proposal of a revision of above mentioned rule on the FEI’s website which includes the addition of a new Article 241.3.30 as a cause for elimination which reads: “blood on the Horse’s flank(s) caused by the Athlete’s leg. NB: Minor cases of blood on the flank(s) as described in the Jumping Stewards Manual do not incur elimination”. And adds “as a result of excessive use of spurs” to Article 242.3.1 in case of marks and/or blood on the flank(s). This gives more leeway to the detriment of the horse as prior to that, “horses bleeding on the flank” or “marks indicating excessive use of spurs” where sufficient to justify disqualification. (No, unfortunately, this is not a joke.)
Following that, there was Falsterbo horse show in Sweden where you could tune in to the dressage warmup which was broadcasted on the Epona.tv facebook page until they were thrown out by the show organisers (for the full story visit their facebook page). The footage is ugly, to put it mildly: hyperflexion and ‘modern’ dressage at its best.
And then there was Aachen in Germany where a public broadcasting service published a video together with an article, again showing footage of the dressage warmup and having experts comment who called this form of riding out as abusive and against animal welfare. What you see is horses ridden very tight, very much behind the vertical and definitely not according to the principles of classical dressage and disregarding scientific evidence on the effects and implications of such riding – for the horse.
The German Equestrian Federation (FN) responded and distanced themselves from the criticism stating that they did not see any aggressive riding and forced posture through constraint; and that the shown riding was partially not pretty but did not raise concerns for animal welfare.
Support came from one of the major German equestrian magazines who called the report sensational looking for high ratings while appearing to try to discredit the expert status of the scientists, vets and horsepeople named in the original contribution. They also stated that things allegedly had gotten better over the past years.
Well, in my humble opinion, if they have gotten better and we still get these kinds of pictures it is still not good enough, far from horse-friendly and concerning from a welfare point of view.
In respect of hyperflexion or riding with the head behind the vertical, I only need common sense, education and knowledge on anatomy and biomechanics of the horse and the horse under saddle as well as on training and schooling horses with their anatomy and healthy development in mind, plus feel, compassion and empathy to see what is wrong here. If that is not enough I can resort to science. A meta-analysis – identified 55 articles dealing with the effects of equine head and neck postures on welfare and/or gymnastic outcomes such as kinematics, muscle activity, respiratory related issues or overall workload (Hyperflexing horses’ necks – meta-analysis and cost-benefit evaluation). The significant majority of studies (88%) indicated that a hyperflexed head and neck posture negatively impacts welfare. Reasons for compromised welfare included impeded ventilation, pathological changes in the structures of the neck, impaired forward vision, and stress and pain due to these factors as well as the rider intervention necessary to achieve the posture.
These are only a few of many examples. Similar and other cases have happened. And again, what remains the same and disturbs me the most is that the people involved do not take responsibility for their actions, whether this happened intentionally or not, but talk about their love and care for their horses and how unfair and unjustified the critics are.
This shows a certain attitude which speaks of very little concern for the well-being of the horses involved and surely it is a strange type of ‘love’ for horses. The very horses on whose backs those involved gain their successes. And it may appear that such love is easily sacrificed and impaired for the sake of money, outer success and short-term gain.
I believe we owe our horses more than that and they deserve so much better for all they have been contributing to humanity.
I would maintain far more understanding, respect and hope if riders and others involved would accept decisions of disqualification on welfare grounds with dignity, acknowledge the things that are not right, take responsibility for what is inflicted on the horse, and work on improvements to the benefit of the horse instead of softening rules and making up excuses.
Types of abuse, abusive training and handling are not restricted to a certain discipline and to international level of course. They also are not limited to professionals but they are the ones in the spotlight, the ‘role models’ and therefore have far wider reaching impact and influence.
Any international show I visited in recent years presented ugly pictures in the warmup. There was not one place where I did not see forms of abusive riding.
Also, to have a look at another sector, I remember attending a demonstration of a worldwide very well-known natural horsemanship trainer in a huge indoor arena in front of a big audience. A ‘problem’ horse was presented by his amateur rider. There was not much wrong with this horse in my eyes other than a bit of confusion about boundaries within their relationship but nothing major, no ‘dangerous’ behaviour. What followed was difficult to watch. Trying to establish said ‘boundaries’ the horse responded by licking and chewing like mad signalling that it was enough, that he did not understand and that he needed time to process. But he was not listened to instead the session went on with even more pressure and continuous flooding which eventually – after a considerable amount of time – led to the horse rearing as he did not see any other way out, he did rear a few more times and then they wrapped up the session in a way like that he now had learnt his lesson.
At this demonstration, I was in the company of professionals: an equine vet, a sport horse breeder, a professional showjumping rider and a member of staff of an equine college. They all liked and enjoyed the demonstration. And when I raised my concerns about what I had seen I was being told that I “had not understood what he was doing”. Right. It actually is true. Up until today, I do not understand why this guy was doing what he was doing other than for the sake of putting up a show and entertainment. Why he thought that it was necessary to work with so much mental pressure and force with a horse that only tried to understand what he was supposed to do and to learn is totally beyond me. But, of course, *irony on* how could I presume to understand this highly sophisticated level of ethical and gentle horsemanship *irony off*.
The list goes on and covers all disciplines and all levels.
My question in all of this remains: How do people who would describe themselves as horse lovers, who without a doubt have vast knowledge and experience around horses and who have been involved with them for years, if not all their lives, believe this degree of pressure to be acceptable or even necessary? How do people not see and/or feel?
Is it ignorance? Pure lack of awareness? Or are ego, selfishness and greed those aspects that overrule compassion and considerations for horse welfare? One thing is sure: it is rampant and those who do speak up are frequently ridiculed or shunned with their qualification to speak their truth being questioned and diminished.
In all of this, we have to remember that the horse usually is not asked their opinion to participate in our activities and disciplines. The horse has not much choice other than to submit and obey. For this reason alone, we would need to apply an extra level of care and concern. And if we loosen the levels of protection it will always be the horse – and not us – who will suffer from it.
It appears that while our world is more technically advanced than ever our inner progress when it comes to compassion and empathy cannot keep up.
I am sure there are many and complex reasons for this and many people who would have a better understanding on it than myself. One aspect I am personally passionate about in this regard is restoring our disconnection from nature and healing the splits inside ourselves that keep us from tapping into our intuition and sensitivity and allowing full empathy and compassion with ourselves, other humans and other species and the natural world as a whole.
When you come and act from a different place than the mainstream culture or the ruling forces it can be disheartening and frustrating to watch what is going on. We can become angry or feel hopeless not being able to make the change we wish to see. However, we have to be careful with such feelings and emotions not to take over as this will only weaken us and help neither us nor the horses.
Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water,
the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.
– Dalai Lama
I am not at all suggesting to turn away, to put blinkers on and to hide but to focus on the things we can do, however small and insignificant they may seem to us – leading by example through steadily showing and sharing what you would like to see in this world:
- Educate – yourself and others
- Raise awareness
- Stand your ground
- Show up
- Take responsibility
- Act from a place of presence, non-judgement and heart-centeredness
- Be kind and mindful with yourself and others – including those whose actions and opinions you disagree with
Picture credit: (c) annaav – Fotolia.com #70181356