This is first in a series about reclaiming ethical horsemanship

By Catherine Hunter

When I was a kid we did it all and riding was exciting and fun. Our horses were happy, willing and had as much fun as we did. Yet today the horses are not happy. In fact they are screaming at us that they are scared, confused and in pain, or stoically retreating into numbness and desensitivity.

As children we galloped cross-country and swam horses in the lake. I was fox hunting at 8 years old and jumped 4' 9” with no saddle or bridle. Horse shows were in big open fields and the jumps were 3'6” and 4-feet.

Today riders pay thousands to learn what was a simple, everyday part of my training and childhood, and yet are never quiet able to achieve the desired results. Do we really dream of chasing our horses in circles, making them walk over tarps or forcing them into unnatural, even painful, frames and movements?

If you look, really look, you can see it in the show ring. Even at the highest levels, the horses are bucking and rushing through the jump courses. Their tails are swishing and some even stop, refusing to continue.

Study the hardware in the horses' mouths. We have gradually moved from soft eggbutt snaffles, to thin double twisted wire snaffles—a fairly severe bit, to long-shanked pelhams and double bridles. These are consistently fitted with nosebands so tight they are causing injuries, and nearly every entry is wearing some type of martingale fitted too tightly.

Dressage rings are no better. Rollkur and blue tongue are a common sight. The horses are over flexed with hollowed out backs, while riders pull with their hands and drive with their seats. Rather than condemning exaggerated extensions, toe flicking and broken strides, crowds are cheering flashy, artificial movements without realizing the physical and emotional damage it is inflicting on the horses.

Western riding has fallen to the same plague. Riders are constantly giving small jerks on reins attached to thin, long shank bits, to pull the horse's noses in. The horses are forced into an unnatural frame in which they cannot help but fall on their forehands, and then asked to perform high level moves that require engagement of their hindquarters.

These highly commercialized, but damaging ways of riding have given rise to dozens of new equine therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, and other types of bodywork especially designed for horses. When I was young, the horse only saw the vet once or twice a year for shots and worming. We rarely had stifle or back problems, rarely heard about ulcers, and there was little to no market for hock injections.

Gerd Heuschmann, DVM sates in his book, Tug of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage, that today, veterinarians “. . . have become firmly established as a 'necessary' part of the training team.” Really?

Encyclopedia Britanica states that “Horsemanship evolved, of necessity, as the art of riding with maximum discernment and a minimum of interference with the horse.” Is this not the ideal we all hold deep in our hearts when we first dream of riding? What happened? How did we lose that beautiful picture of a happy, willing horse?


Next week let's talk about what happened and what we can do to reclaim ethical, compassionate horsemanship.