By now almost everyone following equine news has undoubtedly heard of the Craig Schmersal warm-up scandal at the FEI World Reining Final in Malmo, Sweden. Schmersal was videotaped in the warm-up pen aggressively shanking his mare Miss Lil Addy Tude, the horse on which he would later go to win the CRI 4 portion of the event, and place second in the Open and CRI 5 portions. Having watched the video (and having seen the two perform to a second place finish several weeks previously at the Rolex/Ariat Reining Cup), it's clear that the mare is already very broke, gives to the bridle immediately and doesn't seem to have any problem listening to Schmersal's commands. It appears that he's trying to give her that last "edge" of responsiveness (meaning, she doesn't dare disrespect what he asks her to do at an event of that magnitude). Several other reiners can be seen in the background of the video using similar corrections, though in the moments captured on film, Schmersal's seem the most frequent and aggressive.
Now, it is certainly not for me to decide whether Craig Schmersal, one of the top trainers and most successful horsemen in the reining business, operated outside of appropriate training protocol for that level of reining horse, or perpetrated abuse. The FEI adjudicators have been tasked with that determination, and their ruling will stand as the final one. However, this incident does leave me as a spectator with a real pit in my stomach, and not simply because I get sick watching any horse being mistreated.
The Schmersal scandal is particularly disturbing to me because I grew up in the stock horse traditions, and truthfully turned my back on most of them due to what I frequently saw in warm-up pens at the large shows. Riders spurring or shanking their horses aggressively and repeatedly to "teach them a lesson," or putting forward a win-at-all-costs mentality that often resulted in horses with doctored tails and uneven Western gaits barely managing to bob along around the ring. It all encouraged me to give up showing for the most part, and become a pleasure rider content to train my own horses and perfect my horsemanship.
It was not until I began watching the sport of reining that I found a reason to love the Western sports again. I thrilled to see fit, healthy horses moving fluidly through their maneuvers in a naturally collected frame. Reining looked like one of the only Western sports where a horse could still "be a horse," while showing off the big moves and stops that are almost entirely the stock horse's domain. Unfortunately, once again the backside of showing has given me cause to question whether I can continue to enjoy the sport as I once did. And I am probably not the only one feeling that loss.
I continue to wonder, every time this type of news comes out about another race, show or event, whether competition and a horse's well-being will always be at cross purposes. Especially when, having watched Stacy Westfall, John Lyons, Lynn Palm, and Bob Avila time and again, I know they don't have to be.