Be an Equine Advocate at Shows

Here's how you can promote and advocate the welfare of horses at shows.
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Here's how you can promote and advocate the welfare of horses at shows.

Behind every horse, at every recognized dressage competition, is a team of advocates, including ring stewards, bit checkers and licensed Technical Delegates (TD) from the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF). At international competitions, there are also FEI (F?d?ration Equestre Internationale) stewards and veterinarians whose job it is to act on the horse's behalf.

The USEF and FEI maintain that the welfare of the horse must take precedence over all else. | Photo by Hunter Messineo

The USEF and FEI maintain that the welfare of the horse must take precedence over all else. | Photo by Hunter Messineo

Though it is rare in the world of dressage competitions, abuse does exist, according to Elisabeth Williams, a USEF technical delegate and the FEI Steward General for dressage in the United States. Veronica Holt, a TD and chair of the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF)'s Technical Delegates Council, says, "Our first function is the welfare of the horse. We are the ones who have the horse as our primary care."

Fortunately, there are mechanisms in place for recognizing and dealing with those who mistreat their horses, at least at competitions. Knowing how to recognize behavior that is not right and knowing what to do when you think you see it empowers each of us to act and ensure the humane treatment of horses.

Going by the Rules
The USEF and FEI, the organizations involved in the governance of dressage competitions, maintain that the welfare of the horse must take precedence over all else. Lines one and two of USEF's Statement of Principle assert that it is committed to "upholding the welfare of horses, regardless of value, as a primary consideration in all activities" and "requiring that horses be treated with the kindness, respect, and compassion they deserve and never be subjected to mistreatment."

The rule book lists specific infractions that include excessive use of a whip, showing a horse with raw or bleeding sores, withholding of feed and water for prolonged periods and the more vaguely stated "inhumane treatment of a horse...by any person." The FEI Code of Conduct states that "at all times the welfare of the horse must be paramount." The finishing touches are being put on a new FEI handbook for its stewards, which is expected to have even more specific definitions.

C. Mike Tomlinson, DVM, has been an FEI official since 1985 and currently works more than 20 FEI events a year, including more FEI dressage events than any other veterinarian. He is also an endurance and dressage rider. He finds clues that something is wrong in a horse's behavior.

"When I first walk into the stall for the FEI in-stall examination, prior to the jog, I can tell what kind of trainer, owner or handler that horse is used to," he says. "I see it in the eyes and ears--fear, avoidance, pre-emptive aggression, etc. The primary function of the FEI veterinarian is to act as the advocate of the horse. We are their voice when they are at an FEI event." If a horse tells him things aren't right, Tomlinson will watch that horse continuously during the event. "And it's not just physical abuse," he says. "The FEI level of competition is particularly stressful for horses and people. Some trainers believe they have to increase stress to improve performance. In reality, the stresses in the horse's life need to be attended to and minimized."

What is Mistreatment?
Lloyd Landkamer, who travels the country as a freelance dressage show manager or secretary observes that he has often seen competitors over-school their horses in an effort to improve a bad situation. "The opposite, though, is usually true. I tell them they aren't accomplishing anything more and to please get off the horse." In cases of over-riding, often all he has to do is wander over to the ring to watch and the behavior will stop.

Over-riding can take other forms. Once Williams watched a competitor ride a horse in 90-degree temperatures five times during the day to drill the upper-level movements. Other times, she has seen riders get up before officials get to the show grounds, so they can ride without being observed.

With the broad range of training techniques and principles out there, it might be argued that one person's training is another's abuse. Often, the line between training and cruelty is in the intent, and it is usually emotion that drives the competitor to cross that line. Riders leave the arena after their test frustrated that they didn't get the changes they wanted or disappointed in the quality of their passage. They return to the warm-up arena to school those movements. "In that situation," says Williams, "the riding must get better, not worse. I find much the same thing as Lloyd. Sometimes all it takes is to wander over to the arena and watch for a while. Otherwise, one has to intervene and ask the rider to quit while the quitting is good."

According to Holt, cruelty is a bit like pornography--you'll know it when you see it. She says there are training techniques that are not necessarily pleasant to watch, but one has to steer clear of judging others with the "I wouldn't treat my horse like that" criterion. But when the rigors of the training reach a point where the horse is uncomfortable, it's time for the authorities to step in.

Williams agrees, adding that much of what goes into defining abuse is common sense. "You have to remember that a correction is not wrong. If, for example, a horse is rearing and almost falling backward, and you clobber him between the ears, that might be justified, but whipping him between the ears because he won't piaffe is not. Using spurs properly is standard dressage training. Constant jabbing with spurs, jabbing in the mouth or yanking on the bit is cruel," she says.

Other unacceptable behavior includes never letting the horse out on a loose rein or poking him continuously when he is standing still just because he moves his head. Sometimes a stern stare from Williams will rectify the situation. Other times, she must remind the rider that "This is not the time nor the place for this kind of schooling."

There are clues to cruelty that Williams and her colleagues are alert to after years at shows. "If there is scar tissue or poultice on the lips, there is something wrong with the riding," she says. "In the jog, when the horse trots by, you look to see if there are whip marks or spur marks on the horse." A snug noseband may be the norm but, if there are bulges on each side of the noseband, it is tight to the point of cruelty. "Two or three creases in the mouth are normal but, if there are 15, the bit is too high in the mouth, forming a sharp V." She says officials need to check headstalls for tacks or other sharp metal objects, something she actually saw once.

Tomlinson reports the most common abuse at dressage competitions is excessive use of the aids, such as whips or spurs. "That is the most difficult thing to define," he says. Breaking the skin, of course, crosses the line, but what about before that point? He says that what is currently accepted in one discipline, in one region or at one level may be different in another. "Those are the ones that are hard to define. Any use of a whip at an FEI endurance ride is considered abuse. Jerking on the bit in a Western class may be an acceptable form of reprimand but not in a dressage class."

The experts agree that even certain warm-up practices by riders not skilled enough to execute them correctly can be a problem. They occasionally come across a horse's head tied very short in his stall or competitors schooling with extremely tight side reins or using other contraptions to hold the horse in a position.

Find out what can be done on page 2.

What Can Be Done?
Holt says that it is important that gate and warm-up stewards and other show volunteers know their responsibilities and ask management who to contact if they have concerns about the treatment of a horse.

At national shows, the TD is responsible for warning the competitor if they witness treatment of the horse that could be considered inappropriate. The competitor can be disqualified from the class and, where warranted, can be asked by management to leave the show grounds.

There is also the USEF "Warning Card," a fairly new tool for alerting competitors to the fact that their behavior is not correct. The Warning Card is used for cases in which there is not enough to go to a full-blown "Charge."

The same scenario can take place at an international level event or CDI, with the addition of the issuance of an FEI "Yellow Card." Much like in the soccer world, a Yellow Card is an official warning that the competitor has behaved in an unacceptable fashion, which can result in a fine, suspension or disqualification.

"It looks really bad for top competitors to be cited for cruelty," says Williams. "The dressage world would know about it before the ink was dry, and it is published in the FEI's Bulletin. I have only handed out one Yellow Card in 11 years of FEI stewarding. I have, however, given quite a few verbal warnings, with a note attached to the FEI Steward's Report."

Landkamer, who has functioned as both TD and show manager, says that in the latter role he has never had a problem pursuing a charge when a ring steward alerts him to some potential mistreatment. "What is right is right, and what is wrong is wrong," he says. However, show management is sometimes hesitant to step up to the plate when it comes to pursuing abuse cases because of concerns about repercussions. Eliminate a rider from a class or ask her to leave the show grounds and she could file a protest with the USEF and even bring a civil law suit.

There is also a concern that being tough on those who mistreat their horses will result in diminished show entries, a concern that Landkamer considers unfounded. "Management shouldn't look at this as losing customers," he says. "Clients are going to find that they aren't getting anywhere with the trainers who are abusive to horses and that their horses are breaking down. By not doing something, management is sending a clear message to the honest trainer and competitor that [management is] not strong enough to stand up for the horses' rights. And they are sending a message to young riders that this abuse is OK."

Holt says that some riders are notorious for the way they treat their horses. "We keep eyes in the backs of our heads for them." She likes them to know that she is watching. She also depends on other competitors not to be afraid to report a problem. "There are times when you know you have done all you can to alleviate a certain situation and there is no choice but to go to a Charge or a Yellow Card. When filing a Charge, you need witnesses. The most frustrating situation is when witnesses develop 'amnesia' or when show management tells you to back off. Then it's 'he said, she said'--a no-win situation."

Holt cites other frustrations: when a horse is not even and the judge refuses to mention it in the test or won't excuse the horse for lameness; when you know a horse will be going home to more of the same treatment. "That is truly depressing," she says.

Make a Difference
Holt jokes that the best-case scenario is when a show runs so well that, like the Maytag repairman, she has nothing to do. But she advises everyone to trust their instincts. If you see something that makes you uncomfortable at a horse show, speak up. Find the TD or the FEI steward, and then let the experts deal with it. If you aren't sure who the TD or FEI stewards are or where to find them, ask. Look by the warm-up ring and at the arena gate. At many larger events, show volunteers wear a uniform shirt or jacket or have a walkie-talkie in hand. They should be able to find a steward for you quickly. You can also approach the show management or even a judge to voice your concerns.

"I like to wear clothes that don't blend in so I can be found," says Holt. "That's why I am there. It's important to be visible and be a resource."

No matter what your level of training or experience, these experts invite you to become part of the team of advocates for the welfare of every horse.

This article first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Dressage Today magazine. To order back issues, call 301-977-3900.