How much discomfort or distress is it acceptable;e to ask a horse to tolerate? And is it time to take a long hard look at what the Equine Industry considers “normal”?
Recently there’s been a big increase in the number of young riders (and their parents) taking an interest in a more ethical version of the sport. More and more people seem to be questioning what we consider the normal methods of riding and horsemanship, and the physical pressure applied to the horse in order that they help us to fulfill our own goals. It does seem strange that one of the main attractions of taking up riding as a sport revolves around the relationship that clients envisage developing between themselves and their horse. A deciding factor for children’s ponies and first horses is their tolerance for fuss from a devoted owner. As we progress as riders – especially those of us that become “professionals” – that aspect has less and less meaning. We would still say we love our horses, but their interest in spending time with us becomes secondary to many other factors.
It is unbelievably easy to instill the natural sensitivity and instincts of a horse in a riders first lesson. So it is all the more peculiar that while the sweet nature and friendship remain an important part of a horses suitability, the ridden part quickly becomes a dominate relationship. Do we really believe horses need to be ridden with a “you will”approach, when we can train them to do so many things with much less force?
Riding is completely unique – in no other sport is the equipment that we use for our success a living creature. The closest comparable is probably dog agility, but even that is a stretch – dogs are not often asked to carry 10-20% of their bodyweight in the form of a constantly shifting, often unevenly distributed, load that has the ability to cause them physical discomfort or damage, or mental confusion. In addition, the number of dogs kept in this country as pets would far outweigh those kept as athletes – whilst the majority of horses are asked to perform some type of physical activity with a rider – ranging from happy hacking to advanced competitive levels.Over the last 15 years there’s been a big shift in “trick” horsemanship and its gradual appearance into more everyday horsemanship. Schooling sessions that would have been circus tricks are now a big part of many peoples training methods. Wherever you stand in your training believes, anything that encourages people to understand up to date research on how horses learn, and think of horses as requiring training to complete a task, rather than presuming they are born knowing what to do, can only be a good thing. People training a horse are surely more likely to notice signs of confusion, physical restriction or fear in more everyday tasks – such as the reluctant hacker, or the whizzy jumping horse. There are good and bad signs of every coin, and some of the professionals purporting to be “natural” in their approach appear to be woefully ignorant of the physical or psychological signs of distress in the horses they work with. It often seems if you attach “horsemanship” to a a name, it is automatically considered to be scientifically based and taking the horses needs before the handlers. Which is why it is so important everyone – young or old, novice or open minded professional – gets the opportunity to learn to truly understand horses, and not believe things simply because someone deemed “experienced” tells us its true.Only by equipping everyone with factual information can we allow the rider to identify when something isnt right – and instill in them the confidence to stand up for what is right for the horse, regardless of the qualifications of the “expert” telling them what to do.
True horsemen of any level will always put the horse first – and will be the first to say they are always learning, refining their techniques according to the information that becomes available. But many “traditionalists” are not going to take a step back and question the way the industry operates – it is how they earn their living, and it works on a sufficient number of horses for them to continue. But does that mean what we take for granted is morally right? Do we have an obligation to stand up and be counted, on behalf of the many thousands of horses that do not fit in to this regime, or the ones that survive by simply shutting down?
30 years ago, circus elephants were considered great entertainment. 10 years ago, few people questioned captive orcas. On a recent first aid course we hear about an old style book that described pinning together the bottom lip and the tongue of patients suffering a seizure. Today we know better – and when you know better, you should do better, shouldnt you? And perhaps that means we need to reevaluate the physical and psychological training we give our horses to prepare them for the career we’ve chosen for them – if we believe it is wrong to view a living horse as a disposable object.
The truth is, to decide if we ought to change the way we manage and train horses, we need to look at our expectations of what this sport is – what we consider a fair contribution from the horse, and what our commitment, our share of the bargain, needs to be for us to demand that.
And everyone’s view on that will be different. Some people believe that simply owning a horse – or any animal – gives them the right to do whatever they want with that creature. It is purchased to serve them and help them achieve their goals, whatever they might be, and is completely disposable once it can no longer give that level of satisfaction.
Some people feel that horses shouldn’t be ridden. That’s pretty extreme – but in an industry where the average age of a sport horse being put to sleep is suggested to be just 8 years old, its actually understandable – we’re clearly not doing a great job of producing these creatures for the role we keep them, or breed them, for.
Most people sit in middle ground – shocked by the statistics but unsure of whats going wrong in this industry. How can they make a difference, and who, if anyone, is accountable? And the answers aren’t easy, because its not just one aspect we need to address. From the terminology and techniques riders are taught to apply aids – “kick him to make him go” and “pull on his mouth” from the methods used on reluctant loaders at a show, or solutions to clipping a nervous horse, its blindingly obvious to anyone who steps back that the advice normally handed out, even from professionals, is desperately outdated and inadequate. A series of shortcuts to achieve a result in the quickest amount of time possible, instead of ensuring the horse is physically and mentally able to confidently offer the response we require. In almost every case, it addresses the symptoms, not the cause. And its difficult to know who to feel sorry for – the owner, paying out their hard earned cash week after week to “solve” an ongoing list of problems? The people handing out the advice, who have done the training, the qualifications, but don’t have anything more to offer? Or the horses, who pay the ultimate price with sore backs, tight necks, bruised mouths and varying levels of stress when n asked to carry out tasks we simply haven’t prepared them for?
Few problems are solved without stripping away the layers and addressing the root cause. there is much mention recently of learned helplessness in horses. Perhaps if they shouted louder sooner – if they refused to go near the mounting block instead of shuffling away twice before “giving in” – if they ran to the back of the stable and threatened us with their hind legs when we approached with the saddle – perhaps we’d listen? Or perhaps we’d just shout louder too.
Because its much easier to shout louder than listen, especially when we don’t understand a single word of the language being spoken.
So perhaps we all need to be accountable? From the professional trainer to the riding school rider. From the farrier to saddle fitter who turn a blind eye rather than educating the owner. Maybe we could all to be a bit more accountable, and look a little closer at how we treat these animals, even on everyday tasks. If we started noticing the signs of physically or mentally compromised horses, we could vote with our feet. The 12.2hh first pony, the teenagers eventer, the mum and daughter happy hacker and the professional dressage horse would all, surely, be raising their hooves to that suggestion?