What Is Acceptable?

On June 3, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) held a Town Hall meeting to discuss equine welfare. The three-hour meeting, available to view at usefnetwork.com, had a short, but powerful agenda. Two of the items centered around rule changes – one to institute mandatory reporting of horses that collapse at a USEF-licensed show for no apparent reason; and the other to prohibit injections within 12 hours of competition, with minor exceptions.

Now, just because cutting and reined cow horse aren’t USEF disciplines, like reining, doesn’t mean the rest of you shouldn’t pay attention, too. History has proven time and again that equestrian sports don’t operate in a bubble – what happens to one can, and will, eventually happen to us all. So listen up.

While the two proposed rule changes are noteworthy and USEF President Chrystine J. Tauber’s opening comments were interesting (more about that later), I was most intrigued by David O’Connor’s remarks. O’Connor is a former Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) president and current coach of the U.S. Eventing Team. He posed some thought-provoking questions: “Could I go to the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into competition? Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.

“Every discipline and breed needs to know themselves in terms of what is inappropriate,” O’Connor said.

To find the answer to what is inappropriate, Tauber charged the USEF’s breed and discipline committees with a fact-finding mission. In a letter to the committee chairmen, she wrote: “I believe it is time to undertake a thorough review and begin the discussion of training and preparation practices for every discipline and breed within the USEF. From shoeing practices, tail carriage and alteration, to training practices including excessive lunging and over-flexion, I believe it is critical to put these and other practices on the table to begin the discussion. We also need to initiate conversation about ‘competition culture.’ Has judging evolved to rewarding robotic behavior in the show ring? Are horses showing too much and too often in the quest for year-end points? It is imperative we begin this dialogue for ourselves before others begin it for us.”

Tauber set a deadline of Aug. 1 for each committee to answer four questions: 1. From the committee’s perspective, are there any training or preparation practices in your breed or discipline that push the boundary of horse welfare? What are the obstacles faced in changing and correcting it/them?; 2. Are we judging horses in competition in the correct manner? If not, why? How can it be changed?; 3. What changes would your committee recommend in order to construct a “best practices” approach for training and showing?; and 4. Will culture get in the way of change? If so, how would the committee handle the situation?”

In her opening remarks at the Town Hall meeting, Tauber questioned, “Can we hold up a mirror, look in it and state that our practices are appropriate and in the best interest of the welfare of the horse? Can we defend, in the light of day, what we do in preparation for our competitions?”

If the questions were answered honestly, I am afraid the answer many of us would come up with is, “No.”

I have many fond memories of showing all-around pleasure horses on the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) circuit as a youth. However, one of my most vivid memories centers around the training methods used to keep my gelding show-ring ready. I will never forget watching an assistant trainer lope my horse down a dirt road at the show grounds. When he raised his head slightly above her idea of perfect, she took the end of the reins in one hand and hit him over the head. Hard.

My dad saw it, too, and I remember his anger at seeing our only horse beaten over the head with a pair of reins. He nearly jerked that trainer out of the saddle while lecturing her about what was, and wasn’t, appropriate treatment of an animal. She never rode that horse again. That day, my dad taught me a huge lesson about handling and training horses, and about horse trainers.

I learned that what one trainer, or discipline, finds acceptable, another may find appalling. For example, I have a friend who just sent a horse out for training in a popular Western discipline. She is well-aware that her horse is likely to come back with bloody sides and welts from the trainer’s spurs, and she is OK with that. Would you be?

What about loping? The USEF has “excessive lunging” on their list of practices that will come under scrutiny. Would the USEF think it’s acceptable to lope a horse for three hours before a show? Do you? What about four hours … or five? Where do you draw the line?

When it comes to my own horses, the things that fall under the heading of “absolutely unacceptable training practices” include anything that serves no purpose, is counter-productive or causes injury. In my opinion, hitting a horse over the head with the reins doesn’t teach the horse anything. It is counter-productive. And, it can cause injury if the end of a rein were to hit the horse in the eye. 

But outside of those black-and-white lines we all have, there is a huge gray area. How long can you pull a horse’s head to his chest before you are crossing the line that prompted the FEI to ban rollkur in dressage horses? How long can you lope a horse before it crosses the line from acceptable warm-up to exercise-induced abuse? If you use a bit that makes a horse’s mouth bleed at home, but not at a show, is that OK? What if your spurs draw blood. Is that abuse or an acceptable result of training?

For now, most of us only have to answer to ourselves. There will come a day when we will have to answer to other horsemen and the public. Could you defend what you do and honestly say it is in the best interest of the horse? Could you explain your treatment of the horse not only in terms of competition and training, but equine welfare, as well? Could you do what you do in Central Park?