So this week it arrived in my mailbox. The 2008 Schedule and Entry booklet for the All American Quarter Horse Congress, the largest single-breed horse show in the world, and a "who's who" of both amateur and professional QH competitors. All of our past and modern day QH greats have passed through the ranks at the Congress, and for those of us with a bleeding heart for stock horses, the event is unsurpassed in its potential for heady levels of equine exposure.
The Congress used to be a "must see" event for my mother and I, back in the days when I rode and showed my own Quarterhorse in southwestern Ohio. Every year we would make the two hour trek to the Ohio Exposition Center in Columbus and eat indulgent fair foods while watching all the glistening ponies circulating within the ring. Seeing the riders decked in their sparkly show ring finest filled me with dreams of competing among them.
As years passed, however, I began to spend more time on the rail watching warm-ups at Congress than in the stands watching competition. During these periods I became acutely aware that competing at this level motivated many riders to rely on unsavory and even abusive "training" techniques to develop the tractable show ring personalities required in just about every Western sport. I saw horses' heads dragged to the ground with draw reins, rein jerking, bit bumping, aggressive spurring, and riders gabbing on cell phones while lunging or riding their horses into semi-exhausted compliance.
At one Congress, I watched a woman take her young horse in the face by the bridle and then spur him deeply to punish him for some infraction likely induced by his age and lack of understanding. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched the abuse, and when she finally relented in her attack and maneuvered him towards the ring's exit, I waited for the pair at the gate. As she passed I commented to her on what a fit, good looking youngster her gelding was. She agreed, and was poised to enter into a discussion of all of his merits when I cut her off with the simple request that she realize how hard he was trying for her, and to give him a break. She huffed off with the downtrodden horse in hand, and I left that year's Congress feeling the uneasy weight of knowing I could never look forward again to watching the competition.
It was about this period of my life that I had my first meeting with a man with whom I would go on to have a long relationship. It being our first date, he attempted to connect with what he already knew to be my greatest life passion by detailing his family's close ties to the racing industry, and commenting on their ownership of several racehorses. He was unprepared for my rankle when I responded by launching several tidbits at him about the often uncomfortable ways that racehorses are prepped for their vocation, the unnaturalness of the physical demands placed on horses trained only to gallop, and the anger and fear I had seen in the Thoroughbreds that I worked with as a hotwalker at Turfway Park in KY. Though I would later go with him to visit his family's horses, and modify my opinion of the racing industry to some degree from experiencing it with people who truly cared about the horses that they owned, he and I would often return to discussing racing's seemingly negligible commitment to horse welfare.
The main debate between us though was not always WHETHER racing was unsafe for its Thoroughbreds. The recent spate of deaths and injuries on prominent tracks throughout the country, involving most notably Barbaro and Eight Belles, has swiftly brought the unequivocal certainty of that issue to the forefront of the public consciousness. Reports of steroid and painkiller abuse also abound, and a few weeks back champion jockey Jeremy Rose was suspended for aggressively whipping his horse in her eye, causing damage so severe that she had to have surgery. There has been so much controversy in recent months, in fact, that the U.S. Government itself has finally decided to become involved. According to The Blood Horse, demand for investigations into "grisly catastrophic breakdowns, drugged equines, greedy breeders, [and] damaged racehorses with nowhere to go" motivated recent Congressional hearings into the racing industry. On the civilian front, the Jockey Club's "Welfare and Safety of the Racehorse Summit" and several "equine health and safety initiatives" instituted by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association are also probing how the sport can be made safer for its equine competitors.
The question presented to me, therefore, was not whether racing was abusive, but whether I could take ethical issue with the racing world in particular when in most equine sports competition, one can find moderately to severely abusive training and exhibition practices. My industry, for instance, Western stock horse competition, has its own issues where horse welfare is concerned. Over the last 15-20 years, the AQHA, the APHA and other stock breeds have worked to change Western Pleasure from it's "peanut roller" past to an event that actually facilitates horses moving in natural, cadenced ways. Until recent rule changes took effect, competitors were often winning by exhibiting zombie-like horses moving at turtle-like speeds. Another practice, of physically or chemically altering a Western horse's tail so that it remains flat and unmoving during a class, has also landed stock breed competition into hot water. In Reining, a Western sport known for its fast stops, spins and slides, horses often breakdown in their hocks and other joints at early ages due to the stress of repeatedly completing complex movements at high speeds. Knowing of these issues, and witnessing shortcut practices in the training ring at Congress, have both tainted my enjoyment of the industry that I otherwise embrace as my favorite.
Nowadays, it seems that every time I open up one of my multitude of monthly horse magazines, I am confronted with yet another tale of another practice in another industry that negatively impacts the health or safety of the very equine competitors upon which that industry relies. For years soring and uncomfortable shoeing techniques have been standard practice in many gaited horse breed shows, and despite aggressive detection methods, the issue persists. The eventing world has recently come under fire for a rash of deaths and injuries in both horses and riders, due mostly to amateur level riders entering overchallenging competitions. Use of the rollkur, a dressage technique that overbends a dressage horse in the neck, to achieve an unnatural frame while riding, was the subject of a 2006 FEI investigation. The FEI is also now instituting new thermographic testing units to test whether high-level show jumpers have been "intentionally sensitized to pain in order to provide a competitive advantage," through the application of "agents [on] the skin on the legs" that would make them "hypersensitive to touch." Even the basic stresses of competition, such as being stabled in unfamiliar environments, and hauled to and from shows can induce conditions such as sleep deprivation and stomach ulcers.
What, therefore, are we doing as horse owners if our horses do not come first? Why keep these magisterial creatures in our lives if we are not constantly working to promote their well-being? A recent editorial in Horse and Rider magazine implores, "Don't Give Ammo to Animal Rights Activists," and suggests that the PETA crowd that descended upon Eight Belles' jockey, was unfounded in their actions. Perhaps they pushed the envelope, but shouldn't we all be animal rights activists already if we own and train these animals? If we aren't our horses' first line of defense, then how can we condemn the people who step up to be so? When will we acknowledge without exception that our horses, with their infinite mystery, beauty, and heart, should not be considered purely as vehicles that facilitate the winning of economic or sociological gain?
My hope is that we are now on our way. Over the course of my next few posts, I will detail some of the advances in modern horse care, new showing regulations, new training practices and new industry legislation that pave the way for the maintenance of happier, healthier equines. Here's to the next wave of horse husbandry.