Wednesday, July 20, 2016

July One Question: When to Speak Up About Bad Horsemanship

I tried to do the July 10 Questions blog hop that's been circling around, but I realized I was really only interested in one of the questions. I started typing my answer and it just kept going. I deleted the first 9 so I won't bore you and without further ado, here's the final question:

10. Have you ever seen questionable riding or training practices, but let it go/ignored it? How do you feel about it in hindsight?

I object to the notion that it's always my business to speak up when I disagree with something. I only know my small corner of the horse world and that only as much as a part-time ammy can.

It's a simple fact that I repeatedly choose the same kind of horse--short coupled, hot, intelligent--and thus I have developed a certain skill set that helps me within those parameters.

I certainly see many, many people handle horses in ways I would never choose to. As long as it's not my horse in question, I generally keep my opinion to myself. It's certainly possible that they have a handle on the truth that I do not. I'm open to trying new things and seeing different ways of training. I'm fascinated by watching different people work. I certainly recognize that the objectives I'm trying to achieve through straight dressage training are not the same as eventing, which has little in common with show jumping, and almost nothing with the breed show world or rodeo circuit.

Good horsemanship is good horsemanship. I can learn from almost any discipline. I love finding where horse worlds converge--hearing about forward energy from a hunter trainer or expecting proper ground work from the Clinton Anderson crowd.

Currently, I describe my training philosophies as a sort of Denny Emerson/Mark Rashid mishmash of listening to the horse and learning to remove all pressure and expectations. Fast is slow and slow is fast.

Obviously, this isn't the hot trend in the competitive world. The people at the top of any sport have a certain set of practices that they use to produce their athletes. Either a horse can deal with them or the horse falls through the cracks. This is for the simple reason that only a certain type of horse will work in their specific environment and they don't want to waste time on the ones that aren't going to pan out.

That's great for them. I guess. I mean, "falling through the cracks" at that level still generally means landing in a pretty ok place. Just because Boyd Martin can't make you an Olympic horse doesn't mean you can't still be an amazing Big Eq packer.

It's less great at the local level--people go ride with big time trainers and clinicians and learn their systems. Just like at the top, some horses make it and some horses don't. The problem is here--what happens to the ones that don't?

Courage hardcore flunked out of a program with a good trainer because it wasn't a good fit for him. That doesn't make him a bad horse, but it means that if I was committed to that program, I would have needed to get rid of him. I didn't. I found/created a program that works for us and we're slowly moving to a place where Courage is a productive member of equine society.

But that's our journey. As a blogger, the constant creation of written content pushes me to think about the process with my horse and analyze it more critically than if I just showed up to ride a few times a week.

If I watch another rider do things I find offensive with a horse, that doesn't mean the horse is being abused. It doesn't mean that my corner of the truth invalidates the corner another rider has. If you're a "pressure Pressure PRESSURE AND PERFORM" sort of rider, well, I find you kind of offensive. I think you're actively undermining the good training you have put on your horse, and I'm 99% sure you're going to whoop my ass at every show we go to. That's how the world works.

Should I speak up? Should I call you out because your experience is different than mine?

Probably not. After all, I'm the queen of fail photos and I'm not really the best at anything in particular. While I see as you frying a perfectly nice horse, you see as me wasting the potential of my horse who ought to perform at a higher level. And hey, if you're happy with your results and your horses are reasonably sound and well fed, bully for you.

We're on different paths.

Lest I sound like I hate everyone who beats me at shows (which is certainly not the case), let me also interject that I see the same or worse from people who wouldn't be caught dead at shows. Underfed or morbidly obese horses, blind commitment to an ideology no matter how it negatively affects the horse, or a complete lack of discipline that creates dangerous situations that horses get blamed for.

Whatever the flaws of the competitive horse world, there is the same and worse to be found in the backyards of people who would never go near a show. At least the show ring demands a presentable, blood-free animal with some basic skills. There is nothing like a public spotlight to pressure someone into cleaning up their image.

And of course, that's not to say that you have to show your horse to be a good horseman or decent human being. There are many different ways of addressing the same problem and rather than worry about which sphere to address it in, I say it's more important to learn what we can from everyone we meet so that we can make the best decisions possible for the horses we are responsible for.

Instead of claiming my chosen type of horsemanship is DEFINITELY the best and then sticking my nose in situations that are none of my business, I choose to watch a variety of people work and see what outcomes they have. Some are good. Some are less so. The horse never lies, does he?

Furthermore, there are definitely situations in which I will speak up--if I know someone looks up to me and respects my opinion, I will do my best to point them in a good direction. If a friend or equal directly asks for my opinion, I will give it with the understanding that it is, in fact, an opinion. I have been in the position where I worked for a trainer and a client of the trainer asked for my opinion--in that instance, I defer to the trainer.

Plain and simple, my philosophy is this: I will always strive to do my best to do right by my horse. I will endeavor to push those around me to do the same and to hold me to a high level of accountability. Beyond that, I would be hard pressed to speak up. I don't believe horse welfare is improved by snark, catty attitudes, and condescension.


  1. This is the best answer I've read to that question. Bravo!

  2. I usually will stay quiet unless it is outright abuse (which, thankfully, I have not witnessed), but I have seen incidents where I make a mental note never to ask that individual to train me or school my horse.

    1. This! I definitely carefully observe pros in their care, turnout of students, etc.

      I don't want to ride with someone that I have seen do things I don't agree with. Doesn't mean I would say something to them but just that I don't want to pay for the opinion of someone I don't respect or agree with.

  3. I can definitely appreciate your view on this topic, and generally agree with it. Personally, I would feel compelled to report obvious signs of abuse, simply because I'm sure we can all agree that animal abuse is wrong. We're required to report it on-course as XC fence judges, and I would have no problem saying something to authorities when/if I saw it at a show, eventing or otherwise.

    When it comes to "questionable horsemanship", the use of a certain "severe" bit or a unique tack setup, I think people should keep their mouths shut. As you mentioned, I don't know the backstory to every single horse at every show and at every event, and whether or not I agree with things like leverage bits or German martingales or a certain training style doesn't give me license to comment on it or report it. I'll assume that person knows how to properly use that piece of tack and/or training technique, and there is a legit reason they're using it. But just because it's not what I would do, doesn't make it wrong unless it's abusive. For me, "questionable horsemanship" is more black-and-white, between causing harm and not causing harm. I've seen plenty of "questionable training techniques" in my life, but never reported it unless it was clearly abusive. But that's just my opinion.

    1. Oh I 100% think jump judging is a whole different kettle o' fish. Then you are acting in an official capacity to enforce/report the quantitative rules of a specific discipline governed by an agreed-upon rule book. That is not remotely the same thing as being a private citizen watching people I disagree with. I probably should have called this out but failed to, so thank you for bringing it up.

  4. I agree completely. It is also hard to know whether what you are seeing is a regular thing or simply a bad moment (for example, if I had only seen Courage flail photos, I might assume you were abusing him or scream about your bit or some other such nonsense), and drawing assumptions based on one snapshot is a dangerous thing.

    The only time I've spoken up was when it looked like a horse or rider was about to get hurt and there was no trainer around to handle the situation. Even then, I keep it to a gentle suggestion that might help diffuse rather than telling someone what they are doing is incorrect. Something like "Hey, have you tried this?" or "What sometimes works for me when they're doing x is this." and then I drop it and don't bring it up again.

  5. I would say that if someone is being dumb but not hurting anyone or their horse then I'll be quiet. At an event or horse show I would have no problem reporting something illegal, dangerous, or abusive. I.E. I think it's unacceptable no matter who you are for bloody slobber to be coming from a horses mouth.

    If someone uses tack that I wouldn't use then good for them if it isn't dangerous.

    That said I post about random stuff on my blog all the time. That isn't directed to specific people just me sharing my thoughts - AKA the entire purpose of a blog.

    Interesting to think about all of this!

    1. Yeah I really should have put an asterix by the "show ring requires no blood" comment and the fact that I have to say that sickens me. I also really can't account for the terrifying and patently abusive big lick world and I hope that whole horrible circuit goes up in flames.

    2. Yeah it's gross that some things even have to be stated honestly.

      Too bad people don't just naturally assume a min level of decency...

  6. I have to disagree with the notion that to make it to the top of a sport, you have to have a set 'program' that a horse either fits in or flunks out of. I think a lot of good riders** got good by being adaptable, and being able to get the most out of every horse they ride. I see Boyd's sale of Trading Aces not as a horse 'failing' Boyd's program, but as Boyd having the insight to recognise that this incredibly successful horse just wasn't as happy as he should be with the type of work he was doing. Another example are the horses Jessica Phoenix had qualified for Rio. Retired broodmare (who had 6 foals!) vs a sport horse destined for the upper levels since day one. Her barn is full of such a wide variety of animals, I don't think anyone could accuse her of having a 'set program' that all her horses must fit into. Which is not to say that some riders don't have a preferred 'type', but rather that (in my experience) most of the top riders can form a successful partnership with just about any horse whether they're their type or not.

    **I'm speaking almost exclusively about eventers here- I only know a limited amount about top dressage riders programs, and next to nothing about the programs of top show jumpers.

    1. I know this wasn't necessarily the key point of your post, but it stuck out to me :)

  7. Overall I agree most with that fact that slow is best. I loathe seeing someone push a youngster too fast and hard all for the sake of competition.

  8. I have to say that having been involved in Arabs for starters, then going to an assortment of different breed shows (POA's, Appy's, QH, Paint and Mini's) as well as shows and competitions partaining to particular events (various English, western, driving, sporthorse inspections, 4H, etc), I have seen and been around a Lot of people involved with horses.

    While there are a select few who stand out for what is true horsemanship and sportsmanship, there are usually far more that stand out for the opposite. Being at the different events, the rules are different and what passes as 'fine' at one, may not be allowed at another. So if I'm going to step up and say something, I had better have a good idea of the rules at that event before I open my mouth.

    That all being said, I have to agree with the OP and many of the comments here. It may not be the way I personally would do something with my horses, but if nobody is being hurt or abused in the process and the rider is getting their desired results, who am I to say Boo?

    I have stepped in to help when I see problems and know I can difuse the situation allowing the horse to learn how to cope with things without being bullied or overly forcefully restrained. Usually the best way to open the door for communication is- Do you need- or Would you like- some help? Sometimes the person would LOVE some help, but they aren't sure who or how to ask. At the new farm I have been working with a guy and helping him resolve issues with his first and now second horse. Small things that produced long term fixes for him and his horse. It always starts with me watching things going downhill and then asking him if he'd like some help. I don't want to see him or the horse get hurt and his issues are relatively small and easy to fix, but left alone, it could escalate quickly in the wrong direction setting them both up for failure or injuries.

  9. Lots to think about here. If you ask me straight up how I view the horse world, it would be a similar answer of a somewhat laissez faire attitude - so long as they aren't hurting anyone or anything or impinging on anyone else's ability to do their thing, it's fine with me. In practice tho I sometimes find myself acting a little more dogmatic, and will occasionally have more knee jerk reactions. As it is tho, there's always more than one way to skin a cat!


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