From dressage to barrel racing, the horse world is a competitive place. Equestrians take their sports seriously, and the will to win can be a powerful feeling. There's a difference, however, between working hard to win and doing whatever it takes to be the best. There's a line drawn in the dirt that separates humane horse training from physical abuse and brutality. The problem is, that line is often blurred and misplaced.
As tough as it is to admit, abuse is a common theme when it comes to horses. Most people think of horse abuse as being animals left starving in their stalls or even the horse racing industry, but unfortunately, a lot of the abuse that happens to horses isn't so obvious. In too many cases, abuse is hidden behind "tough" training methods. It isn't always easy to spot, and that means a lot of horses are suffering in silence.
Why is Abuse So Prevalent in the Horse World?
There is no clear answer as to why abuse is so closely linked to the horse world. Historically speaking, humans have used and abused horses to accomplish their own goals. There have been improvements, but the problem persists.
Opinions on the issue range from one extreme to another. What one person considers a necessary part of training, another would call abuse. The distinction between the two isn't always clear, and part of that is due to generations of using the same training methods. What once was considered okay is now recognized for being overly cruel. Changing that mindset, however, isn't easy.
In many cases, horse abuse happens because we let it happen. Either we don't recognize it for what it really is, or we justify it by saying things like, "That's what we've always done." There are even situations where abuse happens out of complete ignorance. People don't know how to properly care for or train a horse, and while they're not trying to cause harm, their mistakes fall under the category of abuse.
On the other side of that spectrum, there are unfortunately trainers that know their actions are abusive, but they do it anyway. The pressure to win and keep winning can alter a person's judgement. Financial earnings and prize winnings often interfere with humane horse training. Some trainers are willing to do whatever it takes to win.
A trainer's poor judgement can also be combined with sub-par skills to create an abusive situation. If one training method doesn't work, a trainer might resort to an extreme method as a "last resort." It's important to note that abuse is not acceptable no matter the circumstance. A skilled trainer will know how to adjust their methods without resorting to abuse.
What is Considered Abusive?
Unfortunately, the line between certain training methods and abuse is not clear. There is precious little scientific research or even legal action on the topic, and most people rely on their personal ethics and moral code to identify what's okay and what isn't.
In general, most people agree that disciplining a horse is necessary. It can't be all neck scratches and nose rubs, and it's important to teach a horse the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Swatting your horse when she attempts to bite or kick you, for example, generally isn't considered abusive. Repeatedly hitting a horse, however, is different.
There's also a difference between lunging your horse to reinforce a point and lunging them for so long that they become completely exhausted.
This is not a comprehensive list, but here are common practices that most equestrians agree to be abusive:
- Working until exhaustion
- Excessive spurring to the point the horse bleeds or develops "spur dents"
- Continual or especially rough jerking of the mouth
- Beating or hitting with either an object or your hand
- Hang-tying to promote a lowered head carriage
- Withholding food or water
- Bitting around for long periods of time
How to Protect Your Horse (And All Horses)
Laws against animal abuse and increased awareness of the situation are helping prevent horse abuse, but it's a change that won't happen overnight. There is no reliable system to police trainers and protect horses from abusive training methods. Most of it happens away from public view, and most abusers get away with their actions.
There are actionable steps, however, that every horse owner can take to protect not only their own horses, but every horse.
Be Picky About The Trainers You Hire
The best way to ensure your horse doesn't end up a victim of abuse is to pick your trainer carefully. Don't commit to a trainer until you've thoroughly researched their training method and reputation. Ask around for personal reviews and talk to people who know them well.
You can also ask to sit in on one of their training sessions and take a tour of their facility. Above all, don't be afraid to be 100% clear about your expectations. Spell out what you consider to be abusive and ask specific questions about how the trainer would handle a certain situation. If you don't like what they have to say, find a different trainer.
Be Open About the Problem
It can be hard to admit that the equestrian sports we love so much are often associated with a word as disturbing as "abuse." It's tempting to keep that dirty little secret hidden. But ignoring the problem will only make it worse. Every horse owner can make a difference simply by speaking up.
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Don't be afraid to point out abusive behavior and do something about it. If the topic comes up, be firm in your statements and relay factual information. Staying quiet might be easier, but it won't help your horses.
Sources: Horse Times, The Horse, AAEP