It seems like nearly everyone is talking about it. Social License to Operate. SLO. Public acceptance of horses in sport. Riding horses. Carriage driving. World Horse Welfare surveyed people via YouGov and found that 1 in 5 didn't support equestrian sport - that could be 1 in every 5 motorists who drive past you on your weekend hack. Olympic sports and horse racing, and just having a horse and hacking about the place? WHW also surveyed horsey people and found that over half could only support equestrian sport if improvements were made to horse welfare. Wow! So is it acceptable to ride horses? Will we be doing this in 20 years time?
How would you feel if your equestrian practices were simply called out as harmful for your horse? By someone passing by, or in your own head? Or if you called out some bad practice that you saw? How can we be sure to be doing the best for our horses? Not just being the best about them, being right, but actually getting it right for horses? Are you ready to take a good look at what you do with horses? Keep learning from good evidence-based sources such as the huge increase in equine science output? And adapt what you do to keep doing better for your horse?
I have some stories to tell about the devil on my shoulder for sure.
As a teen I was a keen rider and competitor. I wanted to show jump. I wanted to be good at show jumping. I had a lot of burning ambition. I took my horse to the beach in draw reins to work on his shape. I wore spurs, because I felt all the best competition riders did. Neatly strapped on my Nikes because I was cool and rode in trainers and chaps. I got him round, energetic jumping strides. It felt good. And a dog walker called me out. He thought I was tormenting my horse.
What did he know about horse sport? Maybe everything, maybe nothing. But he knew a tormented creature. I was angry to be called out. I don't think I stopped what I was doing much, maybe toned it down a bit. But after that day I never used a draw rein again. The spurs took another year or two to get lost. I ate my humble pie. It was unpleasant. I thought about what I was doing to my lovely horse. I was an avid reader of equestrian books and magazines. I loved my horse and wanted the best for him, like turning him out, soaking his hay because he coughed. I listened to the messages about classically correct equitation in Horse & Rider magazine. I wised up a bit. The last time I used a flash noseband on a horse of my own was back then, in the nineties.
In my early twenties I worked for a prominent UK animal welfare charity as a rehab groom. The stables were situated next to the kennel block. Volunteers came to walk dogs, and many of the prospective new dog owners also walked the dogs past the round pen and the stables, and around the paddocks housing the horses and ponies on site.
One day I was working with a nervous piebald cob in the round pen. I was practicing the latest natural horsemanship techniques for desensitising horses that I had been learning. Because I thought that was communicating with horses in their language. I was shaking a bag on a stick until the horse turned and looked at me. Ad nauseum.
This wasn't actually desensitisation, it was only later that I learned this is a lowering of arousal and reaction to a previously startling stimulus. The horse did not get less reactive or necessarily less scared of bags on sticks. He stayed as alert, just was quicker to look at the bags to stop them rattling. He still looked upset. And people walking dogs kept going past and giving our situation funny looks.
Of course. No one in the early 2000s at an animal rescue place was expecting to see a distressed horse and training methods clearly creating the distress. In the early 00s we were all starting to expect more for dogs, and if more for dogs, why not more for horses? By that I mean reward based training, just as was being promoted by the dog behaviour and welfare team where I worked.
I wasn't called out by anyone else this time, at least not verbally. I did call myself out. I looked at the evidence before me and in the papers I started to read for my master's in Companion Animal Behaviour Counselling. And I changed course. I learned what desensitiation actually was, and other things besides like how to read the horse better and how to make the desensitizing an overall more pleasant experience. I can't say it was easy, but trying to get it right for horses, or anything else, is not always easy. In fact it can be as hard as having the rule book literally thrown at you.
At the same welfare organisation there was an annual horse show to raise funds, and try and educate. Bring a horse mad kid I devoured many hand-me-down and other second hand horse books. Apparently at one time standing martingales were not allowed for show jumping. Not sure if that was a rule or just the good advice imparted by good horsemen and women. Not a rule as it turns out at the time I was asked to judge the unaffiliated jumping at the charity show!
A rider turned up with her horse's running martingale re-purposed as a tight standing martingale. With his head and neck severely restricted, the gelding made a real hash of the warm up fences and appeared most distressed. When the combination entered into my ring I stepped out of my judges' box and approached the rider. I explained that I had seen her horse struggling with lack of freedom to the head and neck and asked her to remove the standing martingale and either go without or re-fit as a running martingale, and that standing martingales are not allowed. She was not happy but took off the martingale and jumped the course. Nicely, I thought, now that the restrictive tack had been removed.
At the end of the class the rider re- appeared, BSJA (as it was then) rule book in hand. Launched it at me. And drew my attention to the fact standing martingales were not, in fact, against the rules. Shame, because her horse did jump better without. But I understood her anger just as my younger self had been angry about the dog walker on the beach who called out my abuse of draw reins and spurs on my beloved horse. Quite right but pretty freaking uncomfortable.
Rules are one way to drive change if they are actually in place, that all riders know them, and when actually enforced. It isn't nice to be the enforcer. Or to have enforcement, but once it's clear and understood that they are there we can all respect them and find ways to work with horses that don't break them and improve their welfare.
We are also being judged by unwritten rules. By ourselves or others. And we also judge. But we do need to remember how to be kind and understand how it feels to feel judged. Being able to not judge. To treat others as being perfectly OK and to hold ourselves in the same postitive and unconditional regard is so important. Especially when rules are not written! And to gently remember that one who never makes mistakes never makes anything. Can you turn your mistakes into learning opportunities? That is a fine thing to do, if challenging.
So will we be riding horses in 20 years time? I don't know. But what I know about myself is that I will keep on learning, and I will be a "menace to complacency" as foretold in the speech at my graduation ceremony (BSc Equine Science, 1999, University of Wales, Aberystwyth), and so I will always be questioning what and how I do as I keep trying to get it right for horses and trying to help others do the same, as non-judgementally and as kindly as I can.
What will you be doing?