This month, I read at least two calls to end ‘cruel comments’ on social media -one from a Dutch trainer/rider and one on Facebook by Abi Hutton, covered in this article by Rachael Turner on the Horse and Hound website. Naturally, we cannot condone the actions of some commentators which are solely aimed from a so-called competitive viewpoint and simply intended to gain psychological advantage over an opponent. On the other hand, many of the comments made by Abi Hutton need to be carefully analysed – a great number of these ‘keyboard warriors’ is not simply attacking for attack’s sake.
The H&H article starts by highlighting the comment
“The equestrian world is a really tough place to be,” she wrote. “It’s early mornings, cold weather, long days, late nights, rare days off and non-existent holidays […] But we love it, we love those darned animals more than ourselves.”
This would appear to excuse much of what is criticised. And let’s be clear here, we are not talking criticism of a rider showing disgust at not scoring enough points, a clear round or being fast enough; we are talking of unacceptable actions directed towards the horse. And this she realises when she states
So next time you see a video and think their horse is over bent, or they are using too much spur, sit back, make a cup of tea and think how you would feel if someone made comments like that about you, think if it’s likely the rider means to do it, because one thing I know for sure, there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked, flapped or pulled when they haven’t meant to.
Here is the crux. Very few ‘keyboard warriors’ will actually make a song and dance of one single incident – as Hutton states, ‘there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked…‘etc. and I’m sure the majority of the warriors would, and do, accept this. What they don’t accept is actions that are clearly repeated, actions that are expressions of anger towards the horse and actions that are obviously intended despite being clearly forbidden by regulation and have been so for a long time. This last category can at times be subjective -what is ‘excessive’ use of the whip, for example?- but is also often objective -the horse that is bleeding through use of spurs or the use of rollkur/low-deep-and-round or whatever excuse of a term we would like to apply these days.
Looking a little closer at Hutton’s comments:
- The equestrian world is a really tough place – but so is cricket, rugby, golf…so is sales and marketing; being a nurse, GP or surgeon; lorry driver; bus driver… Don’t excuse yourself for something you have chosen yourself as a hobby or profession.
- …we love those darned animals more than ourselves. Yes, you quite probably do. Nobody is denying that. But even battered children and wives are loved – and by the one that batters them; the mistreated dog is loved by its owner… What we are missing here is not love, it is respect.
- So you’d think by the time we’ve fought all of this in the day, we would resist making cruel comments about each other on social media. Firstly, the videos are rarely posted on the same day and likewise the comments. And as I have already stated, commentary is very often related to repeat or clearly illegal incidents.
- “…if the folks commenting want to say they’re looking out for the welfare of the horse, follow the rider around for the day and see how pretty much all they do is in the best interests of their horse.” This is sadly a very misguided statement. One of the places where the ‘warriors’ feel justified in making comment is the practice ring: here we see the riders and horses ‘warming up’. And despite claimed invigilation by officials, it is often here that the first signs of the breakdown of a supposedly good rider-horse relationship appear. But if we want to stick to basic welfare-principles, when horses are kept in trailers, or at best, tied up outside trailers, almost all day long, then we can hardly call that good. And back at home, the horse is all to often stabled for long periods, isolated from any proper physical contact with other horses, poorly (incorrectly) fed…thus crumbles the argument of ‘best interests’ all too rapidly.
- “So next time you…think their horse is over bent, or they are using too much spur…think how you would feel if someone made comments like that about you…” Personally, I would be horrified – not at the fact that someone was criticising, but in the interests of the horse. The competitive rider should be able take these criticisms on board since, as already noted, they are rarely made on a single isolated incident but rather on continued action.
- “…think if it’s likely the rider means to do it, because one thing I know for sure, there is not a single rider on the planet who has not kicked, flapped or pulled when they haven’t meant to.” See the previous point -we are not talking isolated instances. And we are talking competition. The jury may mark you down but even they are not above unacceptable or illegal actions.
- “People have contacted me saying they don’t even want to ride if people are around watching. Others have been avoiding competing because they’re scared of what people will say.” I’m afraid that is what competition is all about; people watching you and noting your mistakes. After all, what Hutton is saying is that being over bent or too much use of the spur is not intentional. So it is merely social media comment on a rider’s mistakes…
- “One of the issues with horses being behind the vertical is it’s such an easy thing to spot – but a lot of people don’t have the knowledge to see if its [way of going is] going to get better.” Once again, it is the observation of a repeated or long-lasting action that causes people to react. A momentary -albeit illegal- behind-the-vertical posture is not going to incite the wrath of every keyboard warrior out there. They don’t need the knowledge to see if its [sic]…going to get better; when it lasts more that a scarce couple of seconds, it is wrong. And if you do it even for a few seconds in the ring, how much do you do it at home when practising while nobody is there to correct you?
- Abi said that those in the horse world are particulary [sic] vulnerable to being affected by unpleasant comments. Why? Do you think being a horsewoman or horseman makes you special? There are a great many more people outside the horse world that have a very much higher vulnerability to unpleasant comments.
- “We’re already dealing with so many uncontrollable things. Horses can sometimes bring out the worst in people because it’s such an up and down sport…” Yet another problem in the (competitive) horse-world – so many people do not seem to be able to accept that the horse is an animal and not a motorbike. If you cannot accept that, then (competitive) horse-riding is not for you.
I would also like to quote from one of the comments on the H&H article – it seems to partially sum up the problem nicely: “Nobody wants to hear the truth. Who would pay an elite trainer, to tell them they have no talent, & their horse has no talent?! The standards of equitation, & basic horsemanship, are plummeting on a daily basis, because instructors are afraid of losing much needed business, if they offend a pupil w/ the truth.” In fact, we can go even further than this. A routine visit to almost any equestrian establishment will show (so-called) professionals practising exactly that what is wrong in front of their young and impressionable riders. It is commonly said that the future lies in the hands of youth – but when youth is so blinded and brainwashed by the malpractices we call tradition, the future suddenly becomes a great deal less bright. These future stars learn from the stars of today and if the stars of today don’t set a good example, then nobody else will…
Probably the biggest problem, in the end, is the definition of welfare. There may well be some justification in the argument that we shouldn’t be riding horses in the first place. But evidence would tend to point toward the horse, ridden under a good flexible saddle and by a rider of adequate ability and limited weight, being quite capable of being ridden without detriment to its health until quite late in life. But we must also consider many other detrimental factors such as incorrect management -accommodation, feed and so forth – the use of bits, shoes, hipposandals etc.
Most people in the equestrian world seem to forget that the horse is a sentient being, forget that it is a mammal. They expect it to perform exactly the same way week in – week out and when it doesn’t, they express alarm and anger. They ask the horse to be perfectly aligned, to walk in an absolutely straight line. In reality, a horse will never be perfectly aligned -mammals never are; it does not naturally walk in an absolutely straight line.
And that is where some of the arguments also become distorted. Getting the horse to be perfectly aligned is ‘a question of proper training’ and if you say that a horse does not naturally walk straight, then you can also say ‘it is not natural for it to be ridden either’. But these are irrational arguments based on futile tradition. It is impossible to have a perfectly aligned horse. It is true that some horses have muscular and/or skeletal problems but these cannot be ‘trained’ out; they need proper treatment by an osteopath or physiotherapist. Training it out is more likely to place the stress elsewhere with the result that the horse simply gets tied up elsewhere. And a horse without muscular or skeletal problems will suddenly find itself stressed as never before!
The same applies to making the horse walk in a perfectly straight line. It is not natural and to force it to walk unnaturally is to stress muscles and joints abnormally; even more so if it is carrying a rider.
‘Top’ sportsmen and women always lay claim to fabulous abilities; only they are capable of using a double bit and reins for such imperceptible subtleties in signals; only they know exactly how much spur to give -and it never hurts the horse. But there are obvious questions to be posed here: at just what point in your career did you acquire these abilities (unlikely they were bottle fed with them…)? after all, before you discovered them, you were undoubtedly yanking at the bit and prodding in the ribs too… And shouldn’t we be principally riding our horse through use of the seat and legs, not through the ankles and the hands? If it is so necessary to have a bit to direct the horse with subtlety, how is it that people manage to turn their horses on a sixpence, with just a piece of cord around the horses neck?
So before you start to complain about people who point out your errors, just think first. Are they so ‘unjustified’? Are they just being ‘cruel’? Or do your feelings for your horse go no further than love? Because respect is not what YOU need, it is what YOUR HORSE needs…