While we are all basking in the Olympic afterglow, where Britain won both individual jumping and dressage in spectacular style, and wondering whether Parzival really was bitten by something and if maybe he was withdrawn for more sinister reasons, our attention has been much focused on the welfare and potential of abuse at these high levels of competition. The entire future of Equestrian Disciplines may well be threatened as Olympic events as we equestrians once again, have to explain to non-riders that: No, we do in fact not just “sit there” while the horses do all the work. We are, as much of a team, if not more than, a pair of figure skaters would be. Never mind the fact that we are communicating with an animal ten times our size in a language native to neither of us! But never mind all of that…
I attended a little training show today. You know, the kind where your fellow riders are genuinely happy (and perhaps a bit surprised) that you managed to get around the course without having lost your way or even get bucked off. The kind where teenage boyfriends are dragged along because we expect that kind of dedication from a man if he intends to date us! (It’s only much, much later that we realise that it may be wiser to leave better halves at home and let the groom do the groom’s job. It is simply better for the horse, our shattered nerves, as well as the relationship!) The kind of show where everyone is an expert, because either they “grew up with horses” -meaning they lived on a farm and there happened to be horses on it, or they dabbled in riding themselves 20 years ago, had such blast their children simply have to have the opportunity to ride too!
This is the kind of competition where showing up with a big fat (clearly expensive)horse kitted out in fancy gear, everyone assumes (for reasons that still baffle me) that you actually know what you are doing, because you obviously have money for the big, fat, expensive horse. Never mind that in the arena said fat horse can’t do two strides in a straight line and is clearly paying attention to everything but his rider, oated up to the eyeballs and bursting from his own skin.
The warm-up arena is not only occupied by, but taken over by a rider who is clearly not competing, but allowed to ride there as this is her home turf. She saws away at her horse’s mouth when his nose is already behind the vertical, and after having trotted around for twenty minutes forced into that unnatural frame, he objects to his burning muscles by giving a buck and is rewarded for his effort by being forced around for another twenty minutes. When his being uptight upsets a child’s pony (who was clearly ill-prepared for the competition in the first place) and she is bucked off, instead of asking the big non-competing rider to go away, or at least stop torturing her poor horse, the child’s pony is mounted by the instructor to “sort it out”. These are ponies that are ridden by everyone and anyone. They are expected to behave despite the fact that little bodies are bouncing on their backs like wildly wobbling sacks of potatoes, thumping them in the ribs and at the same time jerking them in the mouth because they have not learnt to keep their own balance yet. They are beaten into submission and when they give up on life and shut down, they are beaten some more and kicked mercilessly in the ribs for being “lazy”!
At this level of riding, no-one expects much. We are simply trying to give everyone a chance to enter the ring, conquer the show nerves and show the world what they have learnt. It seems innocent enough, but what exactly is it they are learning? It’s not about the horse. The focus is on the kid. And this is where, in my opinion, things go wrong from the get-go! When a pony bucks a child off in the warm-up ring, they are given the chance to rather get on another pony that is “quieter” so they can at least get their minute in the ring. When this same child, in four or five years time, throws a tantrum and blames the faults in the competition on the horse, we wonder where on earth they get that from? But what have we taught them?
We have taught them nothing about the building of trust and a relationship between horse and rider. We have taught them nothing about why horses behave the way they do at a show, when you as a rider is tense and nervous. We have taught them nothing about horsemanship!
In the story of Black Beauty, John Manly gives Little Joe Green’s father an irate speech when he is relieved that Joe’s causing Beauty to get sick was “only ignorance”. Ignorance is not an excuse. We should know better and we should teach our kids better! You are not allowed to drive a car unless you have proven that you can do so without harming others. Why then, are you allowed to own and care for an animal without having been adequately equipped to deal with said animal? Horses are not machines. They are real live creatures with their own set of feelings and opinions. UNless you are capable of, and willing to respect another person (even if that person is an animal) as a separate being, you have no business being on a team with them.
Yes, but we all have to start somewhere, we all have to learn somehow, I hear you say. And it’s true. We do all have to start somewhere and learn somehow, but I think there is a lot more preparation that needs to go into a child before it’s let loose with a pony! The welfare of our horses ought to be taken into account at all levels of competition. We cannot expect our children to grow up respecting their horses as team mates if we do not teach them that their ponies have feelings too and are not just there to do as they are told…