Defending Horses with Words and Money

Fair warning: I'm going to ask you to do a favor for horses. It will involve some of your time and the money that you spend anyway.

I try to avoid any photos of abuse. I don’t share them because they titillate perpetrators. Besides, I’ve seen enough cruelty for a thousand lifetimes.

One got by me this week on Facebook; it was a photo of a dog who had fireworks set off in his mouth. He was a German Shepherd with kind, intelligent eyes and a mass of blood where his mouth had been. Brutal, stupid, and the work of his own human. More and more, that’s how I see riding abuse in horses.

Riding abuse is a catch-all term I use for any mounted behavior involving violent hands, metal on bone, and a horse’s mouth. In dressage the FEI has gotten many complaints, so they debate what to call Rollkur. Or Hyperflexion. Or LDR (low, deep, round). They’ve changed the name a few times to make it understood better. It’s defined as an exaggerated flexion of a horse’s poll and neck, that got “popular” in the 1980s when Nicole Uphoff of Germany used it in training her horse, Rembrandt. It became a fad used by successful competitors. Now young horses in lower level dressage in the U.S. get pulled behind the vertical. In spite of dressage fundamentals and USEF rules.

Dear FEI, It isn’t that we don’t understand the words; it’s the cruel and destructive training method that we despise. (Tug of War, Heuschmann). We want it outlawed.

This week the internet bled with photos from the Falsterbo Horse Show in Sweden. Images of riders in warm-up abusing elite horses, their noses pinned to their chests, while the riders braced back, pulling hard. Even with all the complaints, this painful method continues. They may be competitors in the discipline that I love… but what they are doing IS NOT DRESSAGE.

The debate has torn dressage riders apart. Classic dressage proponents talk about disowning competitive dressage riders, even though most dressage riders competing today do not use hyperflexion. Competitive riders who are innocent feel attacked, even as they hate the cruelty that exists.

After we lump all the dressage riders who show their horses together in an unfair pile, we also blame the judges, although the worst of it goes on in warm up. And the technical delegates and stewards who have the job of reporting infractions. People rant against dressage when the cause has much more to do with money. We point to everyone but ourselves. What if we contribute to change and not more blame?

This brutal week for horses got a bit worse with the release of a Clinton Anderson video. Erica Franz wrote a great article on her Writing of Riding blog titled, Clinton Anderson isn’t an Asshole.

Many of you sent the YouTube link to me privately, and I will admit to a meltdown. To my eye, the most brutal hyperflexion techniques exist in western riding and it’s personal; it was reining that led me to dressage in the first place. I wasn’t born with a dressage saddle; I love a hot spin and a cool run-down, but I’ve worked with a handful of Anderson method horses. They had a story to tell, too.

To add gasoline to the fire, at the end of that video, Anderson shares an unprofessional rant, in guise of bragging about not being politically correct, while insulting his very clients. The other word for that is bullying.

Have we all become haters? Is that where we are now? Did classical masters like Klimpke, Oliveira, and the Dorrance brothers give in to cruelty? The exact opposite; they spoke for training with kindness and understanding–above brute force.

Then there are people like me. I train fear-free with positive techniques, often working with horses who have flunked out with other trainers. Sometimes with stallions and other times, with Anderson’s “tree-hugging idiots that ride in a bitless bridle.” Just my kind of rider, frankly.

And I write this blog. The most common comments and emails are from riders whose experience with trainers remind me of stories about domestic violence. Riders who escaped with their horses and believe that herd behavior is a little more nuanced than “the meanest one wins.” Every week, my readers get to feel good about understanding that leadership is about providing safety, not fear. I preach to the choir but it isn’t enough. The horses need more.

“My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.” -Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, 1877.

We always wring out hands and coo to each other about the suffering caused by cruel training. Enough already.

Training disasters are like fashion disasters: Mullets and white patent leather shoes went away when we stopped buying them. We have to do our part instead of grumbling while horses suffer.

When equestrian consumers take a stand and quit supporting abuse with our considerable money, the real change will begin. And yes, change is as slow as rust. We don’t have a moment to waste.

I spent a lovely evening this week, with a glass of wine and my computer. First I wrote a short paragraph explaining that I was boycotting their company because of cruel training methods and unacceptably rude words from a professional they sponsor, and ended by saying I would encourage others do to the same. Then I went to the Down Under Horsemanship sponsor page, made easy with clickable links. Two of the sponsors were companies that I’ve done business with for decades. So I pasted my complaint on email after email, sipped my wine, and felt better than I had all week.

Or go to No Rollkur, read up, and sign the petition. Relabel yourself; Horse Advocate is a good title. Then stand up proud to put horses first.

Each week, take a few hours away from your horse (or better yet, cleaning the bathroom,) and instead of complaining to your friends who agree with you already, add your voice to your dollars. Smartpak will notice. Then contact national organizations, like USEF, USDF, or your breed organization, and speak your word for horses.

And if you are going to send off complaints, also compliment sponsors who back trainers and events that you respect, as well as sending off notes to show management about good judges and show officials that promote the true standard. VOTE, dammit. Your word is stronger than you know.

A few weeks ago, I posted that some friends and I were going to the FEI World Cup in Omaha next spring. There were comments that dressage was cruel and boycotting it was necessary. If that’s how you feel, by all means boycott, but please write a pile of notes to let the organizers know your thoughts. Scream bloody murder; be heard.

As for me, I’ll be there cheering loudly for the best horses and riders and taking names of the rest, soon to become my new pen pals. I hope the dressage world finds a path back together. That we won’t let that ideal of the art and beauty of a horse and rider partnered in oneness ever be destroyed. That those who understand what’s at stake will refuse to hand dressage over to the haters. That we will stand with the horses who taught some of us at least, to rise above our human shortcomings.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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