The drive to win can mean that sadly some trainers and riders are willing to resort to the cruellest of tactics to achieve success.
It seems the more money involved in the arena, the greater the temptation to resort to underhand techniques to achieve the win. The horses are the ones which suffer. Fortunately many authorities are moving to prevent these practices and eliminate them from equestrian sports. Sadly, the following list of examples is not exhaustive.
The modern poster image for bad and abusive horse training methods, Rollkur inspires controversy wherever it is discussed. It is also known as hyper-flexion and over-bending. Rollkur is used in training or warming-up the horse.
The horse is ridden with its jaw forced into its chest so the crest of the neck is higher than the poll and the neck is drastically shortened. With his head in this position the horse cannot see where he is going and is also thought to experience some difficulty in breathing as the flow of air through the nostrils and into the airways is restricted. The horse is also described by many observers to be prone to hollow in the back and show tension in the neck, both undesirable in dressage, and to show signs of mental stress in clamping the jaw and swishing the tail.
Dressage is the most common equine sport to be associated with Rollkur, where it has been associated with some elite riders, but it has also been employed in show jumping, and no doubt, in various forms in other competitive equine sports. The practice was banned in 2010 by the FEI- Fédération Équestre Internationale – the international governing body of equestrian (horse) sports.
The move followed a widespread outcry against Rollkur, following the release of a 2009 video on the internet showing Swedish dressage rider Patrik Kittel riding a horse using Rollkur in warm up for a prolonged period of time. The horse, stallion Watermill Scandic, was seen to have a blue tongue through the pressure being exerted on his mouth. Worse still, though multiple riders were in the arena, none gave the pair a second glance, causing many to wonder just how widely accepted this training technique is in the upper echelons of the dressage world.
Though some professionals continue to defend its use, the majority of internet resources are firmly against the practice and tend to regard it as a form of abuse.
Tennessee Walking Horses are the main victims of this practice, which is the intentional infliction of pain to the horse’s legs and feet to force it into an artificial exaggerated gait- highly prized in the showing of the ‘big lick’ performance walking horses. The ‘big lick’ horses have a flashy, animated running walk where the horse appears to sit back on their quarters and lift their forelegs high off the ground with every step. This is accentuated by the use of large pads and chains around the fetlocks, and in some cases, by the torturous use of painful shoeing and chemical applications. The latter are illegal practices, but as the horse’s extreme gait can be developed over months or years of this abuse, even if a horse is not found to be ‘sored’ on the day of a show it may still have been subject to the maltreatment for a lifetime beforehand.
Among the popular soring agents are mustard and crotonal oils, which both cause redness, burning and even blistering. The horse’s forelegs are coated and often wrapped to allow the chemicals to absorb through the skin, causing extreme pain and misery to the unfortunate animal. Tenderness in the legs is now looked for at most competitions, so it is said that these unscrupulous trainers bully their charges into ignoring the handling of the painful area.
As one person prods the tender spot on the leg, another watches the horse for any flinch and responds by beating the horse over the head or inflicting a more severe pain by other methods, such as burning the tongue with a lit cigarette. The absolute horror of some accounts of these horses’ brutal lives are shocking- all for the sake of titles and money.
Soring in another form is thought to exist in show jumping. Chemical agents are applied to gain the same result as in the walking horses- to get the horse to lift the legs. In show jumping, the soring is at the front of the forelegs and the hind legs, to make them tender and sensitive and make the horse reluctant to hit the poles, and so, jump more carefully.
This tenderness is referred to as ‘hypersensitivity’ and can also arise through trauma to the legs, such as that caused by the old practice of ‘rapping’. Though considered much less common than in the world of the ‘big lick’ walking horses, authorities are still trying to stamp the practice out. The FEI was particularly concerned by an incident at the 2008 Olympics, where five show jumping horses tested positive for the pepper, capsaicin, which can be used to make horses hypersensitive. Increased vigilance has lead to some high profile controversy however, as in 2010 the leading horse and rider pair at the world cup finals, Sapphire and McLain Ward, were eliminated when the mare was felt to be hypersensitive under testing.
Rapping or Poling
In this practice the pole, which has historically been heavy, even metal, is raised by an assistant to hit or ‘rap’ the horse’s legs as it jumps the fence. This causes pain and makes the horse lift its legs even higher in futile attempts to clear the obstacle. It also causes soreness and tenderness of the foreleg which again makes the horse more reluctant to touch a pole. This can be observed as hypersensitivity, the tenderness which is also caused by soring via chemical means as described earlier.
The FEI also banned this practice, and it is considered to be rarely seen in the modern show jumping world. If it is witnessed by any spectator, it should be reported.
Beatings and punishment
Even in the ring, the most public of arenas, evidence of horse abuse can be seen. Nick Motmans, a rider for Belgium, famously beat his horse over the head with his crop following a refusal in the show jumping ring at UK’s Hickstead, back in 2005. Uneasy spectators at home and on the grounds commented that he seemed practised with that manoeuvre, and internet commentators wondered what he might be doing to his mounts out of sight.
In 2010, U.S. show jumper Michael Morrissey was suspended and fined for whipping his horse up to 13 times on the approach to a jump at the Wellington CSI**. Beating a horse with a whip continues to appear in many sports arena to varying degrees. Whilst one immediate smack as a correction is generally regarded as effective and appropriate for an undesired reaction such as a refusal, flogging is cruel and ineffective and brings the sport into disrepute. The horse cannot associate such prolonged abuse with the mistake that was made and it is often a move made out of temper rather than any logical thought process.
Administering delayed and lengthy punishments to a horse is cruel and ineffective. Horrifying accounts circulate about horses being left tied up fully saddled and bridled and/or deprived of food and water for hours on end having performed badly in the show ring or in a schooling session. Bad trainers advocate this to ‘teach the horse a lesson’ and unfortunately it can work short term, as if the horse has misbehaved it may be too exhausted, sore and/or dehydrated once remounted to fight back. However it is obvious that the problem itself has not been tackled, and once refreshed, the horse is likely to respond in exactly the same way to the relevant stimulus.
Another form of punishment is to try and correct the horse by using pronounced and extreme aids, such as kicking at the sides or yanking at the mouth, sometimes with the rider or handler’s entire body weight behind this yanking. A recent video of rider Craig Schmersal, taken at the warm ups of the 2011 Reining Championships held in Sweden shocked many when he was seen to repeatedly and aggressively jerk hard at his horses mouth in a shanked bit. Given the sensitive area being so badly treated it is hard to understand how this will ever achieve a relaxed, supple horse and really, has no place in good training.