Essays of an Equestrian

Horses For Life Magazine

This article was originally published in Horses For Life Magazine, Vol. 64 ~ 2012.

By Dressage For The Rest Of Us




This is a picture of Gitana, a now 19 year old Andalusian mare owned by Holly Zech of Abacus Farm. The mare had just given birth to a little filly but the filly succumbed and died due to dystocia after a 45 minute struggle to reposition the little girl. She lived for just one minute after birth. This picture, taken 45 minutes after the foal died shows clearly to me and to a host of other good people that horses indeed feel pain. In this case the pain is emotional pain and clearly is excruciating, heart wrenching emotional pain at that. Gitana grieved for hours, lying next to her dead foal mourning her tragic loss.

Now if a horse could feel both a fly landing on his flesh, and grieve so completely, do we need to wonder how horses feel the world over as they are physically or emotionally stressed by us their care givers?

(Thank you Holly Zech and Susie Solomon-mabe of Facebook for use of this picture!)

• As another FB friend says: Kathy Palumbo
This picture is incredibly moving; lets all of us never forgot how feeling and emotional are equine partners are. This image will stay with me for a long time. The next time we are impatient or grumpy remember.

And THAT is the point of my story, The Cruelty Paradox.

When it comes to issues of equine welfare (or any animal for that matter) deciding what is right and what is wrong is often not clearly defined to many people. But to others it is indeed quite obvious.

However, there is one thing which must be noted: The intention to harm need not be present for a horse to in fact, be harmed.

And I find THAT is the most prevalent type of abuse – the veiled, unintentional abuse – strung together with kisses and carrots, done by people who profess their undying love of their horse or horses.

Abuse, intended or not, is multi-national and spans all equestrian disciplines. All of ‘em. Yes, yours too.

Name any person accused of cruelty and the tale will be told of how much they love their precious horsey and how every night they kiss him on the hiney and tuck him into a bed of 3 feet deep of clean, bright, pristine shavings.

And you know what? I believe them. I believe that in their mind they really feel they love their horse and are doing right by them. I mean after all there are kisses and carrots, no?

But I know better. I know that I’ve always loved my horses dearly, often like a mother loves a child. And I still managed to do some very stupid things when I was younger. However for me, one day something changed.

Perhaps I was able to change because to me horses have been hobby, passion and art, and being a novice there was no monetary temptation to look away when something I did or was taught didn’t seem quite right. Not having a vested financial interest gave me the freedom to be receptive to new ideas and concepts and to use fresh, open eyes to evaluate what was going on. Plus, I’m not a particularly greedy person.

Maybe I had done enough winning (even at my silly lower level shows) that my ego was intact and winning even more wasn’t that necessary.

I do credit my own change to the very nature of the horses I was dealing with. They were magnificent teachers. They MADE me change. They simply gave me no choice.

Horse by horse I had to reevaluate what I’d learned from those humans around me. Each horse in its turn made me change my ways by simply saying “NO”. And they protested whenever I screwed up.

Thank goodness they did. My bruises and I owe them one hell of a debt.

So I evolved. As I went from rank beginner to novice to an even more advanced entity I learned. The evolution never stopped. I was truly blessed.

I learned so very much from these horses who told me “NO”; sometimes the hard way. Whether by bite or by buck they sent the message loud and clear so that even a dweeb like me could understand.

God bless their souls.

I consider myself very lucky that I had such horses as teachers such horses. But I do have to give myself a little credit in one respect. They were able to tell me what they wanted only because I was ready and willing to listen. Ego did not get in the way.

Nowadays, I find myself in a strange situation. I seem to constantly come across people who are supposed to be far more evolved than I when it comes to horses and the training of them.

But it would seem that at some point, they stopped listening.

Very often these people are show people who have become so indoctrinated in the “WIN WIN WIN” mindset that both their minds and their eyes have closed. Or, even more inexcusable are those who know what they are doing is bad but ignore it because the ends justifies the means in their calculation of things.

They are amateurs who want to see a reward for all the money and time they spend pursuing their equestrian dreams and these equestrian dreams consist of winning. All of their precious pride depends on it.

They can also be amateurs who emulate what they see around them and do as they are taught, putting all their eggs into the basket of blindly and sheepishly following the words and deeds of a trainer who also lost their way a long, long time ago. Or perhaps they never had it to begin with.

They are professionals who seek the win so that they get more breedings, product endorsement deals, medals or monetary prizes. Without realizing it they’ve sold their souls and in the process are destroying the souls of the horses in their charge in their never ending pursuit of fame and glory. They got greedy for it.

And all of these people will do anything to achieve their goals and fulfill their ambition. Ambition can be a very dangerous thing.

Now there is nothing wrong with achieving goals, fulfilling ambition or winning. The problem arises when it becomes a matter of ethics and in this the victim is sadly always the horse.

Even more disheartening is that many other of us have become so jaded in our own standards that we validate outrageous and harmful training practices like rolkur/hyperflexion/LDR, excessive spurring, soring up of horses and lord knows any other demented and perverse thing people do in the name of “training”.

Just today I had a friend comment on the state of affairs with her breed saying “Those people videotaping the warm ups and the abuse at the Quarter Horse Congress should just get a life.” And although she herself doesn’t ride that way jerking her horses face to kingdom come while grunting like some primordial beast, she is perfectly willing to ignore those that do, maintaining that “It’s none of my business really”.



Even with the recent scandal involving the bloodied grey/white Lusitano horse during a demonstration ride by Haras Dos Cavalieros at the IALHA (International Andalusian Lusitano Horse Association) show showing a bloodied side, there were a number of people willing to offer up the usual parade of excuses.

What are they? Dressagula? Is blood the thing that vampires and FEI dressage have in common? In addition to both sucking that is…..

So I’ve decided to examine these excuses and present my responses to them.

THERE WASN’T THAT MUCH BLOOD: This statement immediately made me think of a Monty Python skit where the characters arms and legs were systematically hacked off and the stoic character responded with “It’s just a flesh wound”. So I have to ask, exactly how much blood IS acceptable? A pint? How much blood would you as an athlete be willing to bleed at someone else’s hand for no reason other than……. Well, heck, there is no reason now is there! In my mind there should be NO BLOOD EVER. Not from the side, the mouth, the foot, the butt or anything else ever known to bleed in horsedom. And, if a horse should happen to bite its tongue, well thems the breaks! In all my 30+ years with horses I’ve actually never seen it happen and even for those who have seen it, it’s only happened once or twice. Except now it seems to be urgent enough to require a rule change.

I’m calling out “bullshit” on this one, plain and simple.

This rule change would affect the highest top sport horses – like the Olympic ones – because those folks are experts and THEY KNOW how to bloody a horse the right way. The rest of us must do it all wrong. Or at least that’s what they would have us believe.

Now we have a proposition before the FEI to allow a horse to continue in the presence of blood if a vet says it’s okay. Really? Something that happens that infrequently needs a new rule?

Thankfully that insanity has been put on “hold” until after London, 2012. I’m not so sure we have a victory here. I think the Sjefs of the world are simply regrouping in order to find a new angle with which to get the bullshit rule passed.

Yeah, so I’m suspicious. Sue me.

As for bleeding from the mouth it would almost seem like someone is planning for the future. One could speculate that perhaps someone’s training platform results in bloodied mouths consistently. Why else would one want to change a rule over something which has NEVER happened to the majority of horse people? Strange, isn’t it?

Makes you just want to sit up and go “Hmmmm……”.

IT WAS AN ACCIDENT: (In regard to the Lusitano cut by spurs at the IALHA show we all heard about) Accident my ass. This was a rider who chose to ride with roweled spurs which must have been sharp enough to slice up the thickest pizza and which managed to cut an admitted 2 cm cut in the horse’s side. After watching the video of that ride I can clearly see how. The riders uplifted heel was constantly nagging at that horse’s belly and side, firmly implanted there in fact, raking back and forth. In fact, people who contacted me privately – witnesses to the event – stated there was damage on both sides.

Unfortunately there is only photo evidence of the one side, and having not been there myself I cannot swear that this is so, even if I suspect it is. I do hear rumors of other pictures showing two sides existing, but so far they’ve proven to be as elusive as the Holy Grail.

But even if the side managed not to split open, wouldn’t the constant bombardment of the spur on this ride (and so many rides you see in FEI competition and competitions everywhere) at the very least bruise like hell? Even more abhorrent was that the association whose event this was, engaged in the typical “deny deny downplay” way that so many, including the FEI, are so very fond of. And the idea it was an accident means that there was some level of ignorance involved, as in: the rider didn’t know, or realize, that he could cut or was cutting the horse.

Just like in the FEI there is whispering of friends protecting friends so that nothing of meaning would be done. Later on, a picture was posted of the horse cleaned up afterwards. You can see the slash. The slash itself was longer than 2 mm or cm but there’s no way of knowing how much of it actually bled. But it was a lengthy slash mark and had no business being on the side of that horse.

Let’s stop a moment so you can consider this: Even if a spur is isn’t bloodying your horse’s side, it still can be bruising it. The horse is an animal who can feel a friggin fly land on it. You don’t think your jabbing spur (even a dull one) poking him with every stride is gonna cause a bruise? We don’t see it because a horse’s hair hides it. Feel free to experiment. Jab a spur into your rib cage a couple of dozen times and tell me how it feels. Does it give you the warm fuzzies? Do you feel like being a happy athlete afterwards?

Yes, abusers (intended or not) are always sorry. The key is whether or not you’re willing to change how you conduct your riding business. It’s a start. In the case of the Lusitano spur stables, they can change, or we can lump them into the same category as we do…. Say… Mexican rodeo. We all know what that reputation is!

I find it very difficult to come to grips that all of this even has to be a conversation. I would have thought that logically horse welfare is a no brainer. I mean didn’t we learn about it as kids? I was immediately reminded of my many readings of the great book “Black Beauty” by Anna Sewell. Anna devoted an entire chapter to ignorance, of things done unintentionally. And don’t discount Black Beauty as being a child’s book alone. According to Wikipedia:

Sewell did not write the novel for children. She said that her purpose in writing the novel was “to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses”[1]—an influence she attributed to an essay on animals she read earlier by Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) entitled “Essay on Animals”.[5] Her sympathetic portrayal of the plight of working animals led to a vast outpouring of concern for animal welfare and is said to have been instrumental in abolishing the cruel practice of using the checkrein (or “bearing rein”, a strap used to keep horses’ heads high, fashionable in Victorian England but painful and damaging to a horse’s neck).[3] Black Beauty also contains two pages about the use of blinkers on horses, concluding that this use is likely to cause accidents at night due to interference with “the full use of” a horse’s ability to “see much better in the dark than men can.”

I quote from Black Beauty:

Chapter 19. Only Ignorance

I do not know how long I was ill. Mr. Bond, the horse-doctor, came every day. One day he bled me; John held a pail for the blood. I felt very faint after it and thought I should die, and I believe they all thought so too.

Ginger and Merrylegs had been moved into the other stable, so that I might be quiet, for the fever made me very quick of hearing; any little noise seemed quite loud, and I could tell every one’s footstep going to and from the house. I knew all that was going on. One night John had to give me a draught; Thomas Green came in to help him.

After I had taken it and John had made me as comfortable as he could, he said he should stay half an hour to see how the medicine settled. Thomas said he would stay with him, so they went and sat down on a bench that had been brought into Merrylegs’ stall, and put down the lantern at their feet, that I might not be disturbed with the light.

For awhile both men sat silent, and then Tom Green said in a low voice:

“I wish, John, you’d say a bit of a kind word to Joe. The boy is quite broken-hearted; he can’t eat his meals, and he can’t smile. He says he knows it was all his fault, though he is sure he did the best he knew, and he says if Beauty dies no one will ever speak to him again. It goes to my heart to hear him. I think you might give him just a word; he is not a bad boy.”

After a short pause John said slowly, “You must not be too hard upon me, Tom. I know he meant no harm, I never said he did; I know he is not a bad boy. But you see, I am sore myself; that horse is the pride of my heart, to say nothing of his being such a favorite with the master and mistress; and to think that his life may be flung away in this manner is more than I can bear. But if you think I am hard on the boy I will try to give him a good word to-morrow — that is, I mean if Beauty is better.”

“Well, John, thank you. I knew you did not wish to be too hard, and I am glad you see it was only ignorance.”

John’s voice almost startled me as he answered:

“Only ignorance! Only ignorance! How can you talk about only ignorance? Don’t you know that it is the worst thing in the world, next to wickedness? — and which does the most mischief heaven only knows. If people can say, `Oh! I did not know, I did not mean any harm,’ they think it is all right. I suppose Martha Mulwash did not mean to kill that baby when she dosed it with Dalby and soothing syrups; but she did kill it, and was tried for manslaughter.”

“And serve her right, too,” said Tom. “A woman should not undertake to nurse a tender little child without knowing what is good and what is bad for it.”

“Bill Starkey,” continued John, “did not mean to frighten his brother into fits when he dressed up like a ghost and ran after him in the moonlight; but he did; and that bright, handsome little fellow, that might have been the pride of any mother’s heart is just no better than an idiot, and never will be, if he lives to be eighty years old. You were a good deal cut up yourself, Tom, two weeks ago, when those young ladies left your hothouse door open, with a frosty east wind blowing right in; you said it killed a good many of your plants.”

“A good many!” said Tom; “there was not one of the tender cuttings that was not nipped off. I shall have to strike all over again, and the worst of it is that I don’t know where to go to get fresh ones. I was nearly mad when I came in and saw what was done.”

“And yet,” said John, “I am sure the young ladies did not mean it; it was only ignorance.”

I heard no more of this conversation, for the medicine did well and sent me to sleep, and in the morning I felt much better; but I often thought of John’s words when I came to know more of the world.


Yes of course they do and Hitler loved his beloved German Shepherd Blondi before he had her brains blown to smithereens in that bunker. Parents who beat their children and people who starve their animals all profess to love them too. You can file this meaningless statement as crap people say which is meaningless and while they have their eyes wide shut.

Yes western pleasure folks love their horses too. Then some of them put staples in the poll (as in stapler staples peeps) to get them to perform quieter. If that doesn’t work, they just drain the blood. Think vampire again.


When people respond strongly and negatively to a seeming act of cruelty there will eventually be assertions that the “mob” chastising such an act is overreacting to the situation and that they’re going too far. The outrage is seen as inappropriate. That’s a heck of an assertion to make because it assumes how much outrage someone would display with an even more offensive act. It also is no excuse for the act itself.

All of this is actually easily solved. Don’t do offensive acts and people won’t “overly react” to them. Err on the side of better judgment. Accept that things are different now, and if you are recorded or seen abusing a horse in a public setting, that a bunch of loud mouthed cows are going to go batshit about it.

Call it the new normal.

So all I can ask of myself and of everyone reading this is that you take a moment to reflect on everything you do with horses. Every little stupid thing. Look at each and every situation with eyes wide open. Have yourself in the position to consider possibilities and to just, for a little while anyway, push away ego and agenda, pride and profit, goals and gold. Ask if there is a softer way, a better way.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to declare war on one another over riding horses? Wouldn’t it be nice if gold wasn’t the standard of accomplishment but rather the righteous, kind and fair process of training was to be honored? I mean the word “dressage” itself does mean training after all. And western pleasure SHOULD be a pleasure. And reining should be about controlling not with the bit….. or should we call it “bit yanking”.

And for those who hate the fact I speak up: You created me. I’m like an Ankenstein or maybe a Frankenblogger. Your cruelties created Dressage For The Rest Of Us. Cruelties to horses and to each other.

But know this: The tide will turn. It’s already turning. Already you are under watch and under suspicion. Cameras are everywhere.

Already governments and courts across the USA are holding conferences and seminars, issuing policy and statute changes as they find a definite correlation between animal abuse (intended or not) and child/spousal abuse.

But above all else remember these words the next time your horse takes your stupidity with quiet dignity:

“…… for horses must bear their pain in silence”
~ Black Beauty

That’s just what horses do and not because they like it or are into S & M. They bear their pain in silence because they have no choice and that holds the same for both emotional and physical pain. Don’t kid yourself that this isn’t true.

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
– St. Francis of Assisi