A 3-year-old stallion stands tied in a small, covered enclosure. His halter is hooked to a chain hanging from a rafter. The tether raises the colt's head and neck to an awkward level; he almost appears to be on tiptoe. He tugs against the restraint, half-rearing and shuffling his feet, trying to ease his discomfort.
The colt will be "hung" like this, away from food and water, all night. In the morning, body-sore and exhausted, he'll put up much less resistance when his schooling resumes.
The person riding him may call this a necessary part of training. Others would call it abuse.
Ordinarily, "horse abuse" conjures images of neglected backyard animals starving or thirsting to death. But there's a subtler kind. It's closer to home, and harder to think about. It happens to well-bred show horses, at the hands of those charged with their care. It occurs when the desire to win--or otherwise achieve a training goal--overcomes the dictates of fair play and humane treatment.
Sometimes we fail to recognize it. ("It's just training.") Sometimes we justify it. ("Everyone does it.") Sometimes, incredibly, we inflict it ourselves, or cause it to be inflicted by unrealistic demands.
Is such abuse inevitable? The horse is one of the most willing and trainable creatures on earth. The human is the most intelligent and creative, and supposedly the most empathetic. Shouldn't we be able to persuade horses to do our bidding without abusing them?
Here's why some think not--and what you can, and should, do about it.
Defining abuse in horse training isn't as easy as it might seem. We'd all agree that proper discipline of a horse is OK, while maltreatment is not. But which is which? Swatting a horse that presents his rump to kick is clearly not abuse, while administering a 90-second "horsewhipping" undeniably is. But what about all the gray area in between these extremes?
For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on measures that most horsemen can agree are, by definition, abusive.
- Hang-tying to break down a horse's resistance and promote a lowered head carriage (by exhausting the neck muscles).
- Riding or longeing to exhaustion (far beyond the length of time needed to "get the fresh out").
- Excessive spurring, especially with so-called "rock grinders" (extremely sharp spurs), causing bleeding and/or "spur dents" (indentations in the cartilage between ribs).
- Excessive jerking on the mouth, especially with a severe bit (such as a super-narrow-gauge twisted-wire snaffle), causing injury to the tongue, bars, or lips.
- Excessive jerking on the lead shank, especially when a chain is used over the face or in the mouth, causing injury.
- Excessive whipping or beating, from the saddle or the ground, causing terror or injury (thrashings that represent an expression of anger and frustration rather than a measured attempt at discipline).
- Hitting about the head, especially with a solid weapon.
- "Bitting around" for excessive periods (where a horse is left to stand for hours with his head tied around to one side, then the other, to enforce flexibility).
- Withholding food or water to create submissiveness. (Cutting back on the grain ration of a hot horse is OK; starving a horse into weakness is not.)
Obviously, such measures aren't the norm in today's Western horse world. Yet they may be more pervasive than we'd care to think.
"There definitely are trainers whose philosophy is to win at any cost," attests Charlie Cole, a multiple world-champion Quarter Horse trainer based in Texas. "Not many people will resort to the worst abuses, such as riding a horse to complete fatigue or hitting one over the head with a bat. But, believe me, it does happen in extreme cases, and owners need to be made aware of it."
The Roots of Abuse
How does someone who ostensibly loves horses (or at least chooses to make a living or pursue a hobby with them) come to use such methods? There's no simple answer, and typically many factors are involved. They may include:
Pressure. A trainer's financial well-being often rests on his or her ability to win in competition. This can lead to cut corners and overstepped boundaries. Overly demanding owners add to the dilemma.
"Some clients have a must-win mentality," notes Cole. "They don't care what you do as long as it seems to ‘work.' But it's not worth it to me--no one can pay me enough to abuse a horse."
Big-money futurities--which require so much of the youngest, least-experienced horses--put further pressure on trainers. Abuse may become a means to "get the job done" in the limited time available before a major event, and to make sure a young animal is "calm" enough to perform.
Weak training skills. Abuse is sometimes the last resort of trainers who've run out of ideas. "It helps to have a lot of ‘tools' in your toolbox," observes Sandy Collier, a world-champion reined cow horse trainer based in California. "If you try something several times and it's not working, it's your responsibility to figure out how to present it differently to the horse so it will work.
"Losing your temper and punishing in anger is counterproductive," she adds. "It just creates fear and more resistance, which can then lead to more abuse."