Abuse: Several Faces, All Ugly

Abuse has been on my mind recently due to various breaking news stories that have crossed my computer screen.

Not a welcome topic for a perfectly nice day? Abuse is an ugly subject, and we instinctively turn away from it. However, bad news never improves with time. We need to confront abuse, not avoid it.

Once I got interested, I did what I usually do: first, go to my Webster’s Dictionary and look up the definition of the term in question.

Bad Effect or Bad Purpose
As it turns out, abuse comes in several different forms. For instance, if we use something to bad effect or for a bad purpose, that’s abuse. Next time you get a chance, take a good look around the horse world. Sharp bits (more on these in a moment) and artificial restraints such as draw reins would qualify for sure, and tight nosebands are a favorite hate of mine. (I agree that not all abuse is purposeful—if your saddle doesn’t fit your horse correctly, for example, that may be unintentional, but it is still abuse. Good horsemen are aware of this and guard against it.)

Oh, dear. Looking at this photo, I hardly know where to start. There is no harmony here, no grace, no partnership between horse and rider, only compulsion, domination and abuse. The draw reins have obviously been used to pull this poor creature’s neck into his chest and the figure-eight noseband is so tight that the horse could not relax his jaw, even if he wanted to. German dressage legend, the late Reiner Klimke, famously remarked, “My horse is not my slave, he is my friend.” I hope riders who see this photo will take his advice to heart. Stacey Wigmore/Arnd.nl

OK, where was I? Oh, yes—it’s abuse to use something to bad effect or for a bad purpose. You won’t have to look far for examples of this one. Just check out the wall of many tack rooms. Some of the metal creations there could have leapt off the pages of a medieval book on “training” the horse. (You’ve seen those illustrations, right? Often the same rider is wearing spurs with rowels.) Although many of us have matured beyond the use of such devices, we still see them at competitions. In my book, any device that relies on pain to enforce compliance is abuse. When it comes to bits, your horse’s affection for you is the strongest bit of all.

Abuse Through Poor Rule-making
Another definition of abuse refers to a pattern of behavior used to gain and maintain power and control. One place we see examples of this is in the disciplinary actions (such as fines and suspensions) our governing bodies are compelled to take when riders and trainers—sometimes unsuspecting but more usually unscrupulous—are found to have used chemicals to maintain power and control over a horse. Jackson Browne has a song about people who would “torture beauty into power.“ Just so, in the horse world. The horses subjected to these offenses were abused for the sin of acting like a horse. The fault certainly lies with the individuals involved, but the rule-making machinery of competitive horse sports bears a heavy burden of responsibility as well. Any time you find judging requirements that call for an abnormal response from the horse, you will find abuse. If the competition requires extreme placidity—or extreme animation—you can bet abuse exists. For certain, any discipline that requires a placid, robotic response from the horse is a discipline that will have a history of numerous drug violations. Show hunters and Western Pleasure are good examples of exaggerated responses from the horses involved.

My definition of a “bad” rule is one that produces malign effects. If the judging requirements describe a horse who performs as if he were drugged, then people will drug their horses. A bad rule encourages people to cheat—they cheat in order to compete with a horse who is required by the rules to perform in an unnatural way.

If bad rules encourage people to cheat, then good rules protect the natural responses of the horse with a concurrent beneficial effect on the riders and trainers. Past judging requirements for the Arabian breed emphasized that the horses should be shown with an exaggeratedly high tail carriage. This requirement soon caused an abusive response by a small group of participants, and ginger and other irritants were used to cause the horse to carry his tail far past its normal position. When judges were allowed to use their opinions and mark down horses with unnatural responses, the breed was protected from abuse. The efforts of the Arabian community should be applauded.

Unfortunately, if the breed or discipline refuses to change its rules, they in effect condone abuse. Any breed or discipline that requires an exaggerated, unnatural action from the horse’s legs will be a discipline that uses unnatural shoeing, weights and chains or “soring” to obtain that action. (If I described the practice of soring to you, you wouldn’t believe such barbarity exists. Look it up.) In the late 1980s, the abusive actions of a few in the Tennessee Walking Horse breed became so widespread and barbaric that the breed’s shows were no longer recognized by our national federation—and remain unrecognized to this day, to the everlasting credit of the federation.

An overflowing “sharps” container is an all-too-common sight at many competitions. While modern veterinary medicine has vastly improved our treatment of horses, every advance in therapy contains the possibility of abuse. Unscrupulous riders and trainers are willing to pervert science to be successful, and the non-therapeutic use of drugs is abusive. Such abuse takes many forms: It can be therapeutic to inject a joint with corticosteroids, but it becomes abusive when it is used to return a horse to competition before the healing process is complete. Our national federation is taking a stronger stand against such abuse, but the strongest defense against abuse is for riders and trainers to value their horse’s well-being more than any ribbon.

The solution for this type of abuse is to change the judging requirements, not to attempt to change human nature. As long as we require extreme reactions from our horses, humans will go to extreme and abusive measures to obtain those reactions.

Abusive Business Practices
Another definition of abuse is a corrupt practice or custom, which in the horse world often shows itself as abuse of people rather than equines. It would be my guess that a large number of the horse sales transactions in the U.S. today involve some form of hidden commission. This usually starts with someone new to the sport looking for a suitable horse to ride. More often than not, the first question some professionals will ask is, “How much can you spend?” You can bet that the pro will soon report back that they have found just the right horse for you and—wonder of wonders—it is exactly in your price range.

Further investigation might reveal that your pro found a suitable horse at another pro’s barn for much less money, inflated the price, charged you top dollar, paid the former owner the original asking price—and the two pros pocketed the difference. I know I am cynical, but I have earned that condition. Even white rats learn from experience, and I learned that I could get cheated by someone with an eighth-grade education just as quickly as by a college graduate. All I can say is, next time you buy a horse, you should get a bill of sale signed by the seller with the price you paid included in the document. The document should include any commissions paid to either the seller’s or the buyer’s agent. (Undisclosed commissions are fraudulent in most states.) You can get a sample bill of sale on the Internet or from any attorney experienced in equine law.

… and More
But returning to my main theme, when it comes to man’s inhumanity to horses, there are more examples of abuse than I care to think about too much or too often. When you read any horse-related magazine these days, you will see countless advertisements for feed supplements purported to calm an excited horse. Many of these supplements are invariably described as “all-natural” (wink, wink), which is advertising code for “they can’t test for this, so you can buy calmness without training your horse.” Sigh. In addition, the improvements in veterinary medicine have led to a veritable cornucopia of possibilities. We now have drugs that can keep unsound horses in use far longer than they should with inevitably tragic results.

And speaking of tragedies, I almost hope you have not been following the news in international endurance—it will turn your stomach. At least six horses have died during FEI-sanctioned endurance competitions (that’s Fédération Equestre Internationale, the international governing body) since the first of the year and several drug violations at those competitions have just been announced. These horse fatalities all occurred in the United Arab Emirates. In the meantime, we continue to allow people to torture beauty into power. Horses are obviously being pushed past their limits and a strong response is needed from the FEI, the international endurance community and the horse world at large. These creatures cannot speak, so we must speak for them and rise in their defense.

Horses are made by nature to be free-roaming herd animals. When we enter into a partnership with them, they surrender freedom and the company of other horses, two of their strongest characteristics, for the doubtful benefits of a life in a 12-by-12 stall with regulated grazing and occasional structured, controlled and solitary exercise. Many horses in such circumstances dedicate themselves to their human partners and find dignity in their work. Their generous and kind acceptance of this one-sided bargain makes it even more essential that we speak out against abuse and prevent it wherever possible. In this era of mass communication, there is talk of expanding our sport to an ever-widening circle of spectators to gain interest and respect for our two- and four-legged athletes. However, if we would gain the world’s respect, we must first make ourselves respectable.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.  

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