Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The integrity of equestrian competition and training.

“A horse is the projection of peoples' dreams about themselves - strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.”

-          Xenophon

I’ve been pretty introspective lately when it comes to thinking about my personal involvement in equestrian sports. This post has been simmering in my mind for a while. In the wake of the recent running of the Kentucky Derby (which I didn't watch and wanted no part of), I feel the need to write these things down (even if they come out in stream-of-consciousness). Call it a record of my ever-evolving relationship with horses.

In a general sense, I’ve been thinking about how various equestrian sports have changed over time. Some things have gotten better when it comes to a horse’s place in this human-driven world. We understand horse behavior and nutrition better, for example, and in theory that allows us to better care for our ponies. I also see that most equine sports are making changes to make them safer and more humane for horses and their human partners.

However, I also see a lot of harm being done to horses in the name of the "sport". I don’t think any of our individual disciplines are immune to the kind of mistreatment I'm talking about. But prevalence alone doesn’t mean it is okay. And that doesn't mean those of us who care can just turn a blind eye. These harms needs to stop. They need to stop not just to protect  animals from abuse but to uphold the good character and reputation of equestrians everywhere. Times are changing, and equestrians need to change with the times.

I think the horse-human bond is a wonderful thing. I think the horse-rider bond can also be incredible. I’ve written about this before: that feeling that comes when there is absolute connection between me and a horse. Horseback riding is fun without those moments where the line blurs between horse and riding. It’s good exercise. But in my case, at least, I’m always seeking that deep connection of trust, communication, and empathy. My thoughts to theirs – our bodies blurring together. I think that most good riders who care about their horses as individuals are seeking that connection to some degree.

Unfortunately, organized sports (much like organized religion) seem to bring out the bad side of the equestrian community. This is especially true when competition is the name of the game. I really really wish this bad side did not exist – but that’s humanity for you. It’s the side that puts money, winning, appearances, and a lust for power above the welfare of their animals. And ultimately, over the horse-human bond.

"Big lick" (and I could have chosen a much more gruesome photo, I promise).
No, I’m not talking about a "bad side" expressed by someone correcting their horse when it bites or kicks. I wholeheartedly cringe at folks who coddle and spoil their 1200 pound pets so they become a danger to humans, other animals, and even themselves. Many of Deli’s serious injuries can be traced directly to another horse that was poorly socialized to the point they no longer know their own specie’s language. They become dangerous and isolated, unable to communicate with anyone properly. Deli, who grew up semi-feral in a herd, seems baffled (and frightened) by horses who don't tell her what's what before trying to rip her face off.

I don’t blame the horse in question for those kind of behaviors: I blame the owners, the trainers, etc. Horses are physical creatures meant to exist in a herd hierarchy – most of them are happier when someone else is in charge because the person in charge is the protector. Anyone who studies horse behavior knows this. Particularly when that person is a leader they are rewarded for following. Horses that prefer to be at the top of said hirearchy also prefer not to use a lot of energy to enforce their dominance. That's why Deli usually gets along great with a truly dominant but well socialzed alpha: one flick of an ear and Deli gets out of the way because she understands her own language.

Treating a horse like a very very big human (and not letting them be a horse) is just another kind of harm, if a more subtle one. Do you think horses enjoy being poorly socialized and unable to mesh with a herd? Doubtful.

What I am talking about when I think of the "bad side"are the training and husbandry practices found throughout the equestrian world in some frequency. For example: riding or working a horse hard before they are physically mature (and no, your QH or thoroughbred does not mature faster than other breeds – their bones still close around the same time) as in track racing and western futurity. Tail nerving or cutting for the sake of appearance. Soring, peppering, tail setting, and the use of ridiculous padding and shoeing techniques – again, to get a “look” that wins. Keeping show horses in stalls 24/7 until they go crazy (there are serious mental health consequences, in addition to the increased risk for health issues, for stall confinement). Tying a horse's head up for hours on end so that they are so fatigued they can't lift it for the show. Over-breeding to get some good sales and dumping the rest so that they ultimately end up in trucks bound for slaughter – and breed organizations that support those breeding practices. Any kind of riding that requires a “look” that means the horse is harmed in some way. I could go on, and I’m sure many of you have your own additions to this list.

All of these practices disgust me and I will make no secret about it.

The Eight Belles breakdown.
 Dressage has bad training techniques that seem to pretty much guarantee wins at the upper level. Rollkur (training with hyperflexion) is, of course, the go-to for finger pointing. It seems to be more about appearance than horse welfare. I could do a whole post just on my thoughts about how dressage has changed in relation to its purpose and horse biomechanics. I’ve had many a conversation with the trainer, and friend, who helped me start and put wet saddle blankets on Deli, about how the sport of dressage had evolved (or devolved). It’s an interesting conversation. I may devote another post to this topic because it does relate to my relationship with Deli and horses in general in a very real way.

Edward Gal & Totilas at WEG 2010.
Endurance even has its bad eggs. The issues with races in the middle East (FEI Region 7) has been a long standing issue such that the rules have changed to help prevent the abuses and horse deaths occurring there. In general I am attracted to the American Endurance Ride Conference’s emphasis on the welfare of the horse. I think this is achieved by making the horse’s health part of the competition, because it capitalizes on humanity's desire to win in a welfare-centric way. The multiple vet checks throughout each race are a GOOD thing, and from my experience in the west coast regions the majority of people are concerned about their horse’s welfare.

I’m not the best rider in the world and I’d be the first to admit I no longer have any dreams of competing at top levels. I do, however, have a good eye for horse biomechanics. I do believe in the basic tenants of classical dressage – that teaching the horse through willing cooperation to be an athlete capable of carrying a rider is essential. How you get to that place of harmony, where rider and horse become a centaur of sorts.

Manolo Mendez on Clint Eastwood II in FEI Intermediate I.
Mendez is an upper level dressage trainer I really respect for
various reasons - including his emphasis on horse mental health.
The Greek general Xenophon wrote a treatise that shows he was ahead of his time – and sadly ahead of our time in many respects. He was concerned about their physical AND mental well-being. He also wrote about how without friendship and cooperation a horse’s aesthetic has little value.

Xenophon also said: “For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer. There would be a great deal more ungracefulness than beauty in either a horse or a man that was so treated. No, he should show off all his finest and most brilliant performances willingly and at a mere sign.”

If a fellow who existed in a time where horses were the premier mode of transportation and war, equestrians with horses in 2015 have no excuse.

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