The moral issue: how is it fair to use horses for sport? Modern theories concerning how horses learn oblige us to make unavoidable changes to keep up with the times.
ANGELO TELATIN – ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR DEPARTMENT OF EQUINE SCIENCE AND MANAGEMENT AT DELAWARE VALLEY UNIVERSITY Dr. Angelo Telatin teaches a variety of courses, ranging from equine behavior to horseback riding and training, in the Department of Equine Science and Management at Delaware Valley University (Pennsylvania). He explored the comparison between equine training techniques and the psychology of learning.
Modern theories concerning how horses learn oblige us to make unavoidable changes to keep up with the times.
For years Angelo Telatin and I have often talked about how public opinion is changing and how sensitivity regards to animals in general is increasing exponentially. Far more attention is paid to their health, to the concept of their wellbeing, to legally protect them from all forms of ill-treatment, to the knowledge and application of the principles that regulate the lives of animals in nature as well as to respecting them as sentient beings equal to human ones.
All this resulted in a great step forward taken by the Italian government concerning the protection of animals and the environment, when on January 19th, 2022, the 1st Commission of the Chamber of Deputies presented a draft constitutional law (A.C. 3156_B) introducing the new comma 3 to Article 9 of the Constitution. This was done in order to recognise among the fundamental principles set out in the Constitution that of protecting the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems, also in the interest of future generations. “State Law regulates the ways and forms in which animals are protected.”
It was in this context that a Principle of Animal Protection (including those destined to food production) was added, envisaging a state law aimed at regulating in which ways and forms this should be applied. This paved the way for a new way of understanding the importance of animals in our lives, introducing the protective principles of a modern state. This important acknowledgment is the result of an overall realisation, which concerns the whole world, and which instructs states to incorporate animals and the environment into constitutional law providing a breakthrough for animal welfare policies.
As always happens when epic change occurs, it is necessary to remain objective in one’s judgement by being well-aware of the facts. Extremisms do not provide constructive solutions, but often turn into defamatory situations and penalise the system instead of helping it grow. Demonising and demolishing equestrian sports is not the way forward. This would result in a series of negative consequences and would backfire precisely against the horses. It is utopistic nowadays to think that horses could live freely in herds galloping across immense prairies. It is however possible to practice Equestrian Sports and all activities involving horses, while making their lives serene, happy and in harmony with their nature.
To achieve this it is necessary to have in-depth knowledge of what equestrian sports are and ensure that all those involved in this sector unite to once and for all ensure there is Conscious Horsemanship. What matters is not what we do with horses but how we do it. That is the key to everything.
In this article we have tried to set out in brief the meaning of ‘Conscious Horsemanship’; we have tried to throw a small drop into an ocean so as to contribute to giving its real value to the relationship between horses and humans, an equal partnership established with reciprocal respect, a relationship destined to last forever on condition that rules concerning the nature of both parties are respected.
There are great horsemen and women who, especially following the birth of the science of Ethology, have taught and teach us horsemanship: the relationship between human beings and horses. It is an important word that represents different schools of thought but all with the same fil rouge: establishing a relationship that totally excludes methods involving coercion in favour of a relationship based on listening, on ethological knowledge that results in communication based on reciprocal respect.
Simultaneously, however, the spreading through the media and social networks of images of unpleasant and at times deplorable situations involving horses, have sparked the reaction of animal-rights associations that effectively, however, have no knowledge of the heart of equestrian sport but judge only what becomes evidence in circumstances that are presented and seen by the whole world. In recent times this also happens very quickly. Let us remember what happened at Rotterdam in 2019 during the European Championships, when a group of animal-rights extremists entered the arena to protest, putting at risk the safety of the horse and rider jumping the course at the time. This was not only pointless but also dangerous, precisely for those they wanted to protect.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics then precipitated the situation, triggering a public reaction and the rage of animal welfare associations due to events that took place during the Games, events that put on the table the hypothesis of the exclusion of equestrian sports from the 2028 Olympic Games.
The events that came to public attention were in the Pentathlon discipline, when the coach of the German team hit the horse Saint-Boy following a refusal and the rider’s fall. The rest of the damage was caused by a horse that died following an accident during the Eventing cross-country phase, while in the show jumping Olympics an Irish rider, whose horse had a nose bleed, continued to jump anyway to the very end of the course in spite of his team’s possible elimination. Then there were also some bad falls and other not very edifying performances by riders clearly not good enough to be competing at such a level and therefore at the expense of their horses. Some of the world’s most authoritative animal-rights associations such as PETA, reacted immediately opposing the use of horses for sport. Articles and books have been published on this subject and a study group formed by the French National Assembly (the French Parliament’s Lower House) formulated 46 recommendations so as to ensure that the Paris 2024 Olympic Games would be those of Horse Welfare. Directly addressing the Paris 2024 Organising Committee, and ignoring the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), this report emphasises the shortcomings of current regulations.
A few months later defamatory campaigns appeared online attacking two of the Olympic riders who had won the most medals and were also respected horsemen known all over the equestrian world: show jumper Ludger Beerbaum and eventer Mark Todd. Two figures who, on the contrary, are certainly not the bad and ugly of our sport. All this is happening now, very recently, but it is a movement that has been ongoing for years and is growing continuously, also due to the rapidity of diffusion through social media of any news that is true or fake We must take note of this now if we want Equestrian Sports to survive. It is up to us horsemen and women to evolve and return to equestrian sports the value that they have in our society, also by protecting horses.
It is up to us to create a movement, a change of direction, proving that Equestrian Sports and all activities linked to them, protect the very survival of horses in modern society.
How should this be done?
Let’s make an example: twenty years ago it was normal in a dog sled race to use whips and it was accepted that dogs ran with their tails between their legs and in a state of fear. Every house had its own guard dog tied to a short chain. Public opinion has now said ‘enough’. It is against the law to keep dogs chained and they live in our homes, loved and protected. Sled racing has not stopped, it still continues. What has changed is the manner in which these races are held and the training used. The dogs are happy, whips are not used; perhaps the performances are different, less exasperated, and yet there is always a winner.
In the horse world, like it or not, we will achieve the same results. Either we accept this or we will be banned. In horses, signs of stress are harder to interpret compared to dogs, but thanks to powerful lenses and video and TV footage then broadcast online, one manages to see these expressions. Equestrian knowledge has made immense progress and thanks to the internet and social media, ordinary people are quickly becoming educated and our sport will have to adapt to change and to awareness.
The ethical issue: is it right to use horses for sporting recreational activities?
The partnership between humans and horses started about 6,000 years ago in the prairies of northern Europe and Asia. This relationship was profitable for both. Humankind benefitted from the horse’s working power, so much so that still now we measure the power of the engines of our cars in horse power, while horses have found evolutionary success becoming part of the human community.
That is why horses were saved from extinction becoming one of the most common species in the world. Wild horses in fact became extinct many years ago and those that now roam the prairies in America and Australia are horse once tame and are now wild again.
The taming of horses is far more recent than that of dogs or bovines. The singular characteristic in the taming of horses lays in the fact that their presence in human communities did not take place through breeding as happened for dogs and cattle.
The first rudimentary horse training technique was discovered 6,000 years ago thanks to the invention of bits. It was therefore this technique that spread within human communities. In fact, cattle can all be traced back to an initial strain of a few particularly docile specimens that later gave rise, through selective breeding, to the current population. For horses, on the other hand, the strains are manifold as wild horses from different parts of the world were caught and domesticated.
Later on, even with horses, man intervened in an important way, using genetic selection to create different breeds. In order to support the symbiosis between human beings and horses it is important to remember the therapeutic role played by horses in helping people who are fragile due to either physical or psychological problems.
So if we accept that the horse must continue on its path alongside human beings, we must make sure we can guarantee it the best possible wellbeing. The question is: are these two things compatible?
Many schools of Natural Equitation have been created in recent years to try and solve this dilemma, trying to justify the use of the horse according to the following concept: the horse is a pack animal that needs a leader so as to survive happily. I become the leader, even using force if necessary to assert my leadership, and the horse feels safe and happy to work for us.
Unfortunately this concept, which started off with the best of intentions to solve the problem, has created a great deal of confusion and justified violence used against horses in the name of leadership.
In reality, with horses it is not so much how severe things used are (a bridle rather than a snaffle) that causes stress, but rather the horse’s inability to understand and clearly predict the aids used and consequently the possibility of interrupting them by exhibiting the desired behaviour. This becomes very simple when training a horse using learning theories applied to training.
What has already been done so far in the world?
If one were to ask the majority of jockeys in the world to race without carrying a whip, the answer would be that the whip is important for guaranteeing the rider’s safety on bends keeping the horse on the track. And since jockeys use their whips, they are obliged to use them to encourage their horses as they approach the finishing line or they risk being reported for not having tried to win, thereby altering the outcome of the race. Scientific research has proved that there is a link between whipped horses and losers.
Most winners are not whipped, while the majority of losers are very frequently whipped. Hence a whip does not help a horse win, but il lowers the level of its well-being.
- In Norway whips have been abolished and races are held without incidents while what interests everyone is that in any case there is a winner in every race.
- Stables in Switzerland are not approved for use if they are not equipped with enough paddocks to guarantee that all horses stabled there will have a certain number of hours outside.
- In Nordic countries horse management no longer involves individual stables but instead small paddocks with a hut, where horses live in facilities that guarantee them social interaction.
- Two of the horses that won team gold at the Tokyo Olympics were shoeless.
- Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Italy too have incorporated the concepts of learning theories applied to horse training.
None of us have a crystal ball for predicting how our sport will evolve, but what is certainly available to us is the chance to train horses according to the principles of the psychology of learning.
We must learn to acknowledge that it is also possible to compete in events at which what matters most is training, harmony between horse and rider and the horse’s comfort rather than obtaining fleeting results achieved through excessive efforts or coercive action, causing the horse obvious stress. This means having a desire to know about these alternatives and applying them as well as being ready to change.
What is certain is that nowadays we have all the scientific means and the knowledge to guarantee harmonious coexistence between horses and riders. First of all, by enabling horses to cope with competitive sporting activities on the basis of their own possibilities and without imposing on them what they are unable to do.
It is pointless to go any further in discussing this topic. Bearing in mind the main sources of stress: first of all long journeys from one side of the planet to another, often with no interruptions. Non-stop shows. Series after series involving all levels and in which one often sees unedifying performances. Competitiveness at all costs. Such a life is not suited to the natural needs of horses. The absence of a social life…and the list could continue. The use of aids, equipment and systems that go against respect for horses and the ethics of our sport. It would be pointless to go into greater detail.
It is not our duty to provide solutions in this article. Everyone must find their own according to their situation. Everyone must use common sense. Everyone needs to put themselves in the place of the horses and stop to think.
By ‘everyone’ we mean ALL THOSE who are ‘horsemen and women’, starting with institution such as the IOC, the FEI, all the national Federations that are at the top of the pyramid, to then include riders, owners, organising committees, chefs d’équipe and so on all the way down to riding schools that are the basis from which everything begins. One starts from the bottom to reach the top. Instruction and training, should not be referred only to equestrian techniques but even more to knowledge of horses and the principles regulating their lives in nature.
We must all be creators, supporters and agents of change.
Let us start with all that is extraordinarily beautiful in equestrian sports. There are many excellent examples to be followed: riders, grooms, trainers, instructors, personalities, horse people in general who, regardless of the discipline they compete in or the method they represent, know how it should be done so as to ensure riding also means awareness. We could make a list of names but, luckily, it would be long. There is a serious need for a balanced approach to sport, common sense and, of course, real horsemanship.
Let us start with them, let us start from there. Perhaps competitions could aim for harmony between horse and rider rather than the athletic exasperation of the horses.
The meaning of words
- – Ethology: study of the behavioural patterns of living beings in natural environments. – Psychology of learning: the process involving the acquisition of knowledge, of competence or a specific capability through studying, experience or teaching. – Training: acquisition of knowledge, abilities and capabilities as the result of being taught or practising a certain discipline. – Ethics: the part of philosophy that addresses human behaviour depending on what is right and what is not.