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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Competition and horse welfare - Can they be compatible?

One of my non horsey friends once asked me if my horses actually enjoyed being ridden, and whether given the choice, they would ever want a rider on their backs.

With the last Olympic and Paralympic Games behind us, we heard and read growing concerns about the welfare of horses at these high levels of competition, and some groups are even saying that equestrian events should be excluded from the big games (although this also has a lot to do with economics and the cost of hosting equestrian events).

Is it fair to ask a horse to travel such long distances and endure very unnatural living and training conditions for the sake of competition, a strictly human endeavor?  Is it humane to endanger horse and rider by requiring them to jump enormous fixed fences at extreme levels of difficulty, as seen in eventing?  How about those horses who have to submit to questionable training methods that are deemed cruel, harsh and even abusive?  Every sport has them!

Cottesmore Leap (Burghley Horse Trials)!

Difficult questions are being asked.  I do believe most riders out there truly love their horses...  I always loved mine deeply, even when I competed and rode very traditionally in the hunter-jumper world.  Even when I had to force my horse into a trailer for a show, or put a chain over her nose to clip her ears.  I just did not know what I did not know, and I did what I was taught to do by well regarded coaches.  Did I ever question my technique - yes, often.  Did I know there was another way, no, not then (this was over 35 years ago).  I had not yet been exposed to other systems or methods, and I was being directed and maintained on a competitive track. Let's be realistic:  this is how a large number of coaches are able to earn a living... it is a fact that riders that compete generally spend more money than recreational horse people - on lessons, horses, coaching and entry fees, etc.

Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet, social media and the growth of natural horsemanship and horse welfare movements, it is harder to remain unaware and it has become impossible to forget, if not ignore, that the world is watching how riders and competitors are achieving their results. The issues arise when the love of the sport and the need for recognition start overtaking the love of the horse... in other words, when the goal becomes more important than the relationship.

Jolie, my former competition horse and the reason I found a different way (Coco 2003)

Back to the first question:  do my horses enjoy being ridden?  I truly believe they do, because they have been given the opportunity of a kind, solid start (or restart) and foundation training, one that values their dignity, their confidence and allows them to understand the process.  One that allows them to learn the fundamental skills they need to operate confidently in our environment and prepares them for a specialized endeavor.  They find purpose in the riding, because I try very hard to give it meaning and provide variety.  I believe it enriches their otherwise very monotonous lives in always too small pastures where everything is provided and they don't even have to flee from predators.  I am convinced that just like us, horses need to have a sense of purpose and a reason for being in their lives.  In the wild, they have to find food, water, protect the herd, reproduce and care for their offspring and herd mates.  In our human and unnatural world, if left to themselves, they become pasture ornaments or barnyard pets with limited stimulation and very few opportunities to think, make decisions and learn.  Horses do love to learn!

I see it as my duty and responsibility as a horse owner to provide meaningful enrichment to their lives by setting them up to learn something new every day, to become calmer, smarter, braver and more athletic.  Idle hooves are the devil's workshop and horses, not unlike dogs and children, do need regular activity and mental stimulation to stay in balance, mentally, emotionally and physically.

Competition can offer such a purpose and meaning, and it can also be done WITH the horse rather than TO the horse, as long as we uphold the principles of good horsemanship and allow the horse to set the timeline.  Questionable training methods are often used for the sake of saving time, taking a shortcut to the desired result, often at the expense of the horse's mental, emotional and even physical well being.  The result is a large number of horses that break down young, can no longer take the pressure, sustain training injuries or even die on the job.  I believe competition done with the horse first in mind can be enjoyed by both horse and rider. I also believe that not all horses are suited for competition, just like some people just don't have the personality to enjoy competing.  Putting the relationship first may mean finding a different career avenue for a horse that is not able to cope well with the crowds, the pressure, the constant changes and the travel involved in a competitive career.

Luca Moneta, international show jumping using natural horsemanship

Is it possible to find freedom within the harness of a rider development and competition system that rewards horses that are trained too fast and must compete at young ages?  That rewards the use of artificial aids, quick fix techniques and often unnatural movement and exercises?  That is designed to teach riders to compete above all, and barely addresses essential horsemanship skills and knowledge? A select few have been able to do it; it takes dedication, a strong resolve and a very open mind. Choosing the path less traveled requires grit, passion, hard work, motivation, determination, core values, and a healthy dose of talent.  Thankfully we are seeing more and more examples out there, riders who choose to put the horse's dignity, confidence and well being above all else and still manage to succeed at very high levels.  They are not the norm, but they exist and they give me hope that things are slowly changing.

Lauren Barwick, Canadian Paralympian, Silver and Gold Medallist, and 4 Star Parelli Instructor

What if we all considered achieving the following three things with our horses:  Bonding, Obedience and Exuberance.  Many people are able to achieve bonding with the horse through kindness, food, etc., but without obedience, these large reactive animals can quickly become dangerous.  I spend a lot of my time helping well intended and kind people stay safe and teaching their out of control horses respect without fear.
In the competition world, we see a lot of obedience.  Unfortunately, many of these horses would rather be anywhere else than with their human.  As horsemen, we are constantly learning and relearning how to obtain willing obedience without losing rapport with the horse, and it is a fine balance that can easily tip one way or the other.
Exuberance is the horse's willingness to put effort into what we want.  This is when we know we have won the horse's heart, when they choose to do our thing, their way.  They are then able to express their own selves while contributing to the achievement of a common purpose or goal.  After all, horses will run faster and jump higher out of heart and desire!

Blue Moon, an ordinary horse learning to do extraordinary things through Bonding, Obedience and Exuberance

Another great example is Amy Bowers, Licensed Parelli 4 Star Instructor, who is moving up the eventing ranks and now riding at the Preliminary level. A very talented young rider and accomplished horsewoman, she is learning to master that delicate balance with her partner Piper and quickly getting noticed in the eventing world.

Amy Bowers and Piper

What if every competitor has these three things in place, Bonding, Obedience and Exuberance, Would it help ease many of the concerns for the competing horse's welfare?  Might we be able to see more examples of harmonious partnerships and happier horses, which in turn might fuel a growing interest in equestrian sports?

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

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