Horses have been on my mind lately. A week or two ago, I was asked to take in a disabled foal. This baby had contracted West Nile disease and survived it, but has been left with nerve damage that made him unbalanced and unlikely to ever be ridden. That means he is useless to his people now. They are looking for a home for him where he can just be a pasture pet.
I am very tempted to take this foal. Layla needs company and he might be perfect for the pet zoo. The things that are holding me back are space and money. Horses need pasture, and we don’t have one. They also need expensive care, and I’m not sure our budget is up for that. I wouldn’t mind paying for him myself though, and we are planning to enlarge Layla’s space anyway. I suppose it depends how severely disabled this horse is. I’ve asked for more information about him and they promised to send me pictures and a video. I’m waiting impatiently! The idea of finally owning a horse after so many years of thinking it was impossible, is quite amazing!
All through my teenage years, from age 10 to 20, I lived and breathed horses. There was nothing more important to me. Every single free minute I had was spent with other people’s horses. This is 17-year old me with Mery, one of my favourite horses ever. I think it was in 1991. Since Mery, I have a weakness for buckskin horses. (If the foal with West Nile disease is a buckskin, it’s mine!)
I still think about Mery quite regularly. I knew her only for one summer, but she made a profound impression on me. I think about her mainly because I am pretty sure she must have had a miserable life and it probably wasn’t very long.
This is Nica, another horse in that riding school. This was probably in 1990. I look slightly younger here 🙂 Nica was bred and trained to be a harness racer – a trotter. She was one of the many who didn’t make the cut and was sold. The specialty of this riding school was buying failed racing horses, who would otherwise have gone to slaughter, cheap and using them for rides.
Nica had never learned anything in her life except how to trot really fast. She couldn’t canter and was hard to steer. Riding her was not a pleasant experience. She felt dangerous, as if she could explode at any moment. She was not a kid’s horse, and this was not rehabilitation. I don’t know if it was better than being put down… maybe.
Mery was also bought cheaply as a young, untrained horse. I was stunned to learn, after the fact, that I was her first ever rider. They had just put a saddle and a rider on her back to see what would happen. She accepted it, so she was pronounced trained and fit for kids to ride. She was only two years old – much, much too young. Carrying a rider for two hours over rough terrain, galloping and jumping, was really hard for her. Horses that are ridden so hard so early in their lives don’t last long. They are worn out by the time they are 10 or even before. See again the racing business as a perfect example of this form of abuse.
Racing and steeple chase are the most obviously abusive horse sports. Every year, 750 horses die on the race tracks. This is apart from the abuse behind the scenes, such as drugging, shocking and other cruel training techniques. And this is still apart from all the thousands of horses who never make the cut and are sent to slaughter without a second thought. Horses like Nica.
I spent most of my life thinking that dressage and showjumping were nice, civilised sports where human and horse work together in harmony. This is probably mostly true on lower levels. But when it comes to competitive sport, abusive tactics abound, like the awful technique of Rollkur:
Does this in any way look natural and harmonious to you? Of course not. Does the horse look happy? Not particularly. Rollkur is a way of forcing the horse’s head so far behind the vertical that his chin touches his chest. It causes pain in the mouth and the neck and it restricts breathing and vision.
I started looking at horse sports in a different way: from the point of view of the horse. Once I did that, everything changed. Dressage looks so beautiful and harmonious, like a dance between horse and rider. But look at this picture:
This is a random picture of high level dressage that I pulled off the internet. I see SO much wrong with this picture, it us hard to know where to begin. First of all, the rider is wearing sharp spurs and he uses an extremely severe double bridle. There are TWO bits in that horse’s mouth. If you look closely, you can see the high leverage bit is pulled almost horizontal. That’s a huge amount of pressure and pain. Those double bits are used to force the horse’s head in that unnatural, behind the vertical position. Yes, it looks pretty. But the strain on the horse is tremendous. His mouth is foaming, there is foam on his chest and his front legs. His tail is active. This horse is NOT enjoying this exercise. There is no harmony. There is only pressure from the rider on the horse.
I don’t understand. These horses and riders are supposed to be the best of the best, highly talented and perfectly trained. Why do they need so much force to perform? They should be able to do everything in a simple snaffle bit with minimal pressure. Is there something I’m missing? Is this what ambition looks like?
Look at this:
This picture is taken from the blog of a girl called Matilde Brandt. It shows her riding dressage not just without a bit, but without a bridle at all. The difference is huge. This horse is relaxed and attentive, he shows no signs of pain or pressure. If that is possible, then it is possible to ride high-level dressage in a snaffle bit or even bitless.
I learned how to ride the English way. But here where I live now, most people ride Western. It looks nicer to me, gentler on the horse. Loose reins, a nice slow lope, a comfortable saddle… Maybe this is a better way to ride?
It can be. But where money and winning is involved, people can ruin everything. This is another random picture off the internet:
This is a picture of the so-called “sliding stop” in reining. What do I see here? I see the horse’s chin being dragged to his chest. I see a huge leverage bit. The horse’s mouth is wide open, he sticks out his tongue to try and avoid the pain. I don’t see a happy horse here.
This is a relatively mild picture compared to the brutality of barrel racing and the savagery that is rodeo. And to top it all off, the horrendous cruelty of what is done to the magnificent creature known as the Tennessee Walking Horse. I’m not describing that here. You can look it up, if you have a strong stomach.
Just to illustrate the madness, here is a video of a western pleasure competition:
Western “pleasure”? Yeah, this must be so pleasurable for the horses. They look like they’re all lame, drugged and robotised. Oh, and note they are all wearing false tails. Ugh. Nothing but human vanity.
This is a picture from an Israeli facebook site for horse riders that I follow:
The riders are unbalanced, have bad posture, they seem to have no clue what they are doing. The horses are thin and too small for the riders. Their tack seems to be cobbled together out of old pieces of leather and nylon. The riders are pulling on the horses’ mouths with no concern for the pain they are causing.
These are “horses for sale” picture, and they are nothing out of the ordinary. Pictures like this are posted there all the time, and no one sees anything wrong with them. The level of disregard and cruelty towards the animal they’re supposed to love is sickening. These pictures made me angry and sas. But I can’t do anything about it.
The riding school where I used to spend my summers is still in business, and very succesfully, I believe. They have extended and are now a hotel, restaurant and holiday centre. I don’t know if their standards for horse keeping are any higher. Probably not. I remember they had terrible, ill-fitting saddles, and all the horses had open wounds on their backs. They told us it was from a fungal infection and made us disinfect all saddle pads (cheap foam) and brushes. Meanwhile, the horses were in pain. Sone of them were so hard to saddle, they jumped, bucked and kicked in their stands.
There was more. A lot more. I didn’t realise the extent of it until I got a paid summer job there. After that, I never returned there. Where animals are being used to make money, it opens the way to abuse. The more money is at stake, the worse the abuse.
But… it doesn’t have to be that way. Other riding schools I have known were not like that. There are plenty of horse owners who ride with consideration for the horse and look after them well. I thought for some time that it wasn’t possible to ride without abuse, but I’m starting to see there is another way. A growing number of people ride in a bitless bridle or a halter. I might join them one day!
I don’t know if the foal with West Nile disease will end up with us. I haven’t heard from them, so they might have already decided to give him to someone else or to put him down. But either way… I might one day just buy a riding horse of my own, if possible in any way. I have also applied for adoption of a rescued donkey. So… keep watching this space! 💚
Just yesterday, I saw this horse posted for sale:
According to them, this mare is 10 years old and pregnant – 10 months, almost to term. The horse is emaciated. The pictures are really upsetting. I cannot get this poor mare out of my head. 4500 shekels they want for her – about 1300 dollars. It would be so satisfying to go and get her, just to see her eat… But they are quite far away and I don’t know where to get a horse trailer from… Oh my. That poor horse. The poor unborn foal. 😓