Much like Black Beauty gave you an insight on the life of a 18th century horse, this post gives you an insight in the world of a 21st century sport horse. Due to my 34+ years of experience both in the Dutch and American equestrian world as an rider, owner and instructor, while importing, selling and showing Dutch Warmblood sport horses, my experiences visiting hundreds of breeding, training and showing barns, both in the US, in Germany and in the Netherlands, my experiences as a student riding with grand prix level riders and judges, I have first hand international, cross disciplinary knowledge of how horses are treated and regarded world wide, both at home and at the show grounds. I have attempted to use my insights to provide a minimally anthropomorphized point of view from the horse's perspective with science backing up my statements.
NOTE: Not all sport horses are treated like this. Not all horses see it this way. Not all riders do what is mentioned below. However, these practices are still prevalent on the horse-human interface. There is little transparency and show management is notorious for looking the other way when abuse is suspected. The audience is largely unaware these things occur in the equestrian world, especially those who attend without prior horse experience. I wrote this initially on my private facebook page to answer a friend's question of 'What does it mean to be a sport horse', and thought there might be a benefit to posting this in a public space as well. It is meant to provide people an opportunity to have an educated opinion regarding attendance and participation of top level equestrian competitions, to expand awareness of issues in horse well fare, and to push progressive motion toward increased well-fare for all horses.
What it means to be a horse to be shown at a top level equestrian show like WEG:
1. CONCEPTION Both your mother and your father were raped to create you; you are most likely created by careful selection of the semen of your father, who was masturbated by a human hand to collect the semen, or had to mount a fake mare, and by the insemination by a human hand or tool of your mother. Nobody bothered to ask for consent; you are a horse, not a human, so your consent is irrelevant.
2. WEANING You were removed from your mother before you and your mom were ready. If you were a race horse before you were an eventer, you might have been placed with a nurse mare, whose own foal was taken away and put on auction to eventually find your way to a Mexican or Canadian slaughterhouse. If you were lucky, you got 3 months with your mom, before you were abruptly removed from her to never see her again ever, causing you to have anxiety and attachment issues.
3. WORK BEFORE YOU ARE READY You had a few happy years to roam with your buds, but then at 2 or 3 years old at the latest, well before your skeleton was fused at 8 years old, your work began, making you work before your body is ready, increasing the odds for injury.
4. SOLITARY CONFINEMENT Ever since then you got locked up in a beautiful, but lonely stall 24 hours a day, and were only let out of 30 minutes in a hotwalker, and an hour of riding. Sometimes you get a day in a small paddock, but your friends are too far away for you to play with. You are too valuable, so the human cannot allow you to play and injure yourself. The stalls have bars, so you can never find closeness with your friends, which goes directly against what nature wants you to do.
5. GASTRIC ULCERS Your stomach hurts a lot, and often you have gastric ulcers, but your expression of pain is not picked up by the human. Your body wasn’t designed to stand still in a box most of the day, and eat only 3 or 5 times a day. The stress of traveling and competition does not help. In a study of 50 show horses, 58% were found to have gastric ulcers. These horses were in active training and had been transported to at least one show in the 30 days prior to endoscopy. A study of 62 thoroughbred broodmares kept at pasture found that 70% of the horses had gastric ulcers. Over half the horses were pregnant, but there was no difference in the ulcer incidence between the pregnant and non-pregnant groups.
6. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST You were pushed to perform quicker than your mind and body could recover. You survived it for now, but the majority of your brothers and sisters didn’t make it and were put to auction as a gateway to the slaughterhouse, or euthanized a few years later due to soft tissue injury caused by the repetitive, excessive strain on joints and tendons caused by modern equestrian demands. When you stop winning, you too are usually sold into lesser and lesser hands. Until you show up lame someday at a back yard barn, and then you find your way to auction, to be loaded on an overcrowded truck to travel for days without water or food to an unregulated Mexican slaughterhouse, or if you are lucky, to a slightly more regulated Canadian slaughterhouse.In 2014, 44,721 unwanted horses were exported to Canada for processing and were 105,339 exported to Mexico. In 2014, in the US, a total 150.060 horses found their way to Canadian or Mexican slaughterhouses. Some were even killed by their owners to collect insurance money.
7. SCARS You have extensive damage to your gums and the bone below the gums, caused by the bit in your mouth. You have scar tissue around your withers from fancy, yet ill fitting tack. You have scars on your side where you are jabbed with spurs, and your owner places a belly band over it to try to get the hair to grow back, or dies your fur to try to hide it.
8. MENTAL TRAUMA You have one or more mental traumas that you express by weaving in your stall, cribbing or simply flattening your ears a whole lot to any horse that dares to come close.
9. LEARNED HELPLESSNESS You do your job because over the years your learn to be helpless and stop fighting. You understand that if you resist, the humans will beat you and kick you with metal spikes on their heels. If you don’t go in a certain posture, they will tighten the straps, and even put additional straps on you that they call draw reins, to force you into a specific frame. It hurts you to move in this way, but you deal with it as good as you can to not cause any more trouble and pain.
10. LACK OF BODY AUTONOMY You have your sensitive hairs removed from your muzzle, as well as from your ears. It sucks when the bugs come, and you often hit your muzzle because an important part of your sensation is taken away. In some countries it is illegal, but in the US it is still very acceptable.
You are subjected to many medical procedures. Starting with castration, and often moving on to multiple injections to counteract the joint inflammation and muscle inflammation caused by your job. Some medication is FDA approved. Some isn't. Sometimes injections go well, sometimes they go really wrong. Sometimes they even inject straight into your joints, which could lead to issues down the road, but helps you perform in the here and now.
11. TRAUMATIC TRAINING EXPERIENCES/JUMPER If you are a jumper, they sometimes trick you by having narrow poles right above the actual poles of a jump. You can’t see them, but you feel them, and they hurt you, causing you to anticipate pain and jump higher next time. If you refuse to jump, they will hit you until you do jump, so you know better than to refuse. If you fail to respond to leg pressure, they will hit you until you do. If you fail to respond to the bit pressure, they will grab a harsher bit, until you do. Your joins ache since you were never designed to jump that high, and land, causing your pasterns to routinely over extend.
12. TRAUMATIC TRAINING EXPERIENCES/DRESSAGE If you are a dressage horse, they often spin you in a circle with very, very tight reins, they call that roll-kur and say that it is good for you, even though science has shown that the majority of horses would not submit themselves to roll kur if they had a choice and that it restricts breathing. If you open your mouth to alleviate the pain the bit causes, they put tighter straps around your mouth to keep it closed; sometimes your tongue even goes blue, but as long as there is no blood, the ring steward doesn’t seem to mind. Your rider sits in the saddle a lot, even thought science says that a two-point or posting trot is more comfortable for you. In the warm up ring your rider gives you a few extra hard jabs with her spurs, and janks on the reins a couple of times extra hard, so that when you are in the actual show arena, you comply better, and she can let the reins go a little bit, so that you will look happy and relaxed, so the audience thinks you like your job and the judge will give high marks on submission and relaxation. If only people would see how you communicate your anxiety with your tail; the only part of your body that the humans have not found a way to control in dressage.
13. TRAUMATIC TRAINING EXPERIENCES/EVENTER If you are an eventer, you watch how several of your friends died after a rotational fall over a solid fence due to their rider forcing them to go too fast on unstable footing with an exhausted, injured body and/or a distracted mind. You fell too, just like 284 of your fellow brothers and sisters in 2014. You feel pain, but the environment is so scary that you have an adrenaline rush causing you to run and not sense pain, until you stop and realize a part of you is broken. You don't really like to run, and are scared a lot, but if you let that get to you and stop for a fence, your rider will hit you with the stick and prick you with metal prongs, and since you are more scared of your rider than of the scary fence, you have learned to choose to jump the scary fences anyways. Sometimes they have to hit you at every fence to make you jump. And this is ok, USEF even put two passages in their rule book that whipping and spurring is completely acceptable at their events, as long as it is at the right time, for good reason. From their rule book: "Severity—As a reprimand only, a horse may be hit hard."
FOR THE LOVE OF HORSES
While riding in itself does not have to abusive or cruel; it has a lot of potential to be cruel, in the definition of ‘causing pain or suffering’. I wonder if we equestrians confuse ‘loving a horse’ with ‘loving how the horse makes me feel’. The first would indicate that one puts the need of the horse before one self. The latter puts the needs of the self before those of the horse, and this is what opens the door to abuse and cruelty. Generally speaking, most equestrians weren’t taught to consider the horse’s point of view, especially those of my generation (1978). We didn’t question what we were taught, we just did what our trainers told us to do, which are things that would fit the other definition of cruelty: ‘willfully causing pain or suffering to others, or feeling no concern about it.’
I think if we plant the horse’s well being, both physically and emotionally, both short term and long term, in the forefronts of our minds, a lot of our questions get answered. If we truly LOVE the horse, we stop ‘thinking’, and start ‘feeling’, ‘listening’ and ‘sensing’ what the horse is trying to communicate. And then we can have a real dialog, a conversation with our horse, that takes into account the things the horse needs, the things the human needs, and finds a win-win on the plane between human and horse.
The tricky thing is, that as soon as you enter a competition; the harmonious synergy between us and our horse is no longer the main goal. Instead, we are subjecting ourselves to the expectation of the audience, the opinion of the judge, our sponsors, the breeder of our horse, the owner of the horse, our parents, our trainer, our own expectation to success, etc. These emotions rise sky high, our anxiety spikes, our ego gets worried about failure, rejection, ridicule. These things all get in the way of feeling, sensing, listening, and the concern for the horse’s well-being takes the back seat.
And then things happen like with Box Qutie, the Swedish eventing horse that crossed the finish line, but then pulled up lame and was euthanized shortly after. Or Barack Obama, the 20 year old endurance horse from New Zealand, that was pulled out of the competition and died shortly after. FEI authorities said that of the 95 horses that started the WEG endurance competition, 53 needed veterinary treatment, including 32 that required IV fluids. If their riders had been truly feeling, sensing, listening to their horse, their horses would not have suffered these consequences, and Barack Obama and Box Qutie might still be alive.
Most of the statements on this post on the horse-human interface are represented with scientific data to back it up. The emerging field of equitation science is helping to broaden and change the conversation and I have provided many back links to studies and research. If you'd like more, I'd highly suggest becoming a member of the International Society of Equitation Science who is pushing the boundaries of horse welfare to include scientific proof. Very excited with this transformation in horsemanship and the way we view equestrianism. May we all catch on quick, for the sake of our horses ánd ourselves.
“Animal welfare is fast becoming the major challenge of the veterinary profession for this century.”
Dr. Bernie Osborn
Dean Emeritus of the University of California Davis School of