Bad Riding, bad day, or abuse: this appears to be the conundrum the dressage world is facing currently. Everyone who has ever sat astride a horse has done some bad riding at some point in their career. Thank God horses are forgiving and that they, for the most part, agree to participate in teaching us to be better – better balanced, better communicators and better stewards of their soundness and health. Every horse ever born has also had a bad day. It’s true, they are not machines, and as sentient beings, they too are sometimes unable to come to the party. So, how do we, as human beings in charge of the welfare of the animals in our care and organizations in charge of writing rules for showing allow for a bad day but draw the line at abusive actions? Because, let’s face it, there can be abuse in EVERY SINGLE DISCIPLINE involving horses.
And let’s not forget context. I might see someone riding a horse in the schooling area. They may ride past me and the horse may cock an ear and the rider might growl and smack them with the whip. I might see that and think that rider seriously overreacted, however, the horse may have tried to spin and kick a passing rider 10 minutes before I got into the warm up area. In that case, no, it’s not harsh and I might have had a similar reaction to that ear twitch.
There has been an outcry on social media blaming judges and stewards for ignoring what some are calling blatant abuse. Let me take a moment to sit here on the fence and provide another perspective. I have scribed for my fair share of judges ranging from learner judges to ‘R’ judges, and I have rarely had one who was not hoping to see a good performance from every pair coming down the centerline be it a first timer or a CCI* rider. I have sat there and watched a few moments of “interesting” movements.
As much as you may not believe it, they WANT you to be successful, have a great ride and perform up to the standards of the level. What I love about dressage is that you can completely blow one movement and get an 8 on the next one. So, by nature they must be forgiving, be able to look past the last moment and judge the here and now that is in front of them in the confines of what is written in the little box on the score sheet. Also, the test passes by MUCH faster when you are judging it than you might think (try scribing for a verbose judge and forget watching anything).
The judges see tense riders, tense horses, explosive horses, distracted riders, those who are pushing to move up and are maybe just a tad overwhelmed on a daily basis – for about four minutes and then it’s quickly on to the next ride. They are responsible for knowing all the rules of dressage, bearing the gold standard in their mind and judging 60-plus rides a day while praying for a potty break. They rely on riders and trainers to understand the rules, and prepare both horse and rider for the show, and be good horsemen and women. At shows, I have seen judges ring out lame horses. Once, a judge I was scribing for stopped a pair and went and looked at a horse’s neck to verify that a mark was NOT due to a tack related rub but did in fact appear to be a healing puncture wound.
So, the question becomes is it bad riding, a bad day or abuse? And if it is abuse, how do we regulate human behavior? At least in a show environment, you have competitors who have agreed to be on the show grounds, registered for the show, and therefore agreed to abide by the rules of the governing body of the show. So, let’s just agree that the organization’s rules set the stage for acceptable behavior.
The USHJA website has a link to a safe sport page, which outlines their stance on horse welfare and the reporting process. What they also communicate in this statement is that it is everyone’s responsibility to help keep the sport and the horses safe by reporting rules infractions, unsafe actions and occasions of abuse.
U.S. Equestrian Rule Violations include excessive use of whips, spurs or bits. Among the 87,942 (just kidding..not really) other rules, the U.S. Eventing Association has outlined further criteria for abuse and dangerous riding.
Fortunately (or unfortunately), safety and equine welfare are seriously hot topics in eventing and as such they have become pretty clear cut about such things. I think this attention does have an impact on setting the stage for what is and is not acceptable behavior. Enforcement is not always perfect, but the result is that the Judge and/or Technical Delegate has a clear cut framework for elimination.
Here is a breakdown of the rule verbiage for Abuse of Horses (EV111):
1. ABUSE. Any act or series of actions that, in the opinion of the Ground Jury or in its absence the Technical Delegate can clearly and without doubt be defined as abuse of horses shall be penalized by disqualification. Such acts include, but are not limited to: Riding an exhausted horse. Excessive pressing of a tired horse. Excessive use of whip and/or spurs, and/or bit. Riding an obviously lame horse.
2. RAPPING. As an exception to the General Rules of GR839, all rapping (poling) is forbidden in Eventing Competitions, and shall be penalized by disqualification.
3. WHIP. The use of the whip must be for a good reason, at an appropriate time, in the right place, and with appropriate severity. a. Reason—the whip must only be used either as an aid to encourage the horse forward, or as a reprimand. It must never be used to vent a rider’s temper. Such use is always excessive. b. Time—As an aid, the only appropriate time is when a horse is reluctant to go forward under normal aids of the seat and legs. As a reprimand, the only appropriate time is immediately after a horse has been disobedient, e.g. napping or refusing. The whip should not be used after elimination. The whip should not be used after a horse has jumped the last fence on a course. c. Place—As an aid to go forward, the whip may be used down the shoulder or behind the rider’s leg. As a reprimand, it must only be used behind the rider’s leg. It must never be used overhand, e.g. a whip in the right hand being used on the left flank. The use of a whip on a horse’s head, neck, etc., is always excessive use. d. Severity—As a reprimand only, a horse may be hit hard. However, it should never be hit more than three times for any one incident. If a horse is marked by the whip, e.g. the skin is broken, its use is excessive.
4. SPURS—Spurs must not be used to reprimand a horse. Such use is always excessive, as is any use that results in a horse’s skin being broken.
5. BIT—The bit must never be used to reprimand a horse. Any such use is always excessive.
The Dressage rule book (https://www.usef.org/forms-pubs/F3p8pgrWgAo/dr-dressage-division) does not have an abuse rule anywhere that I can see (I could have missed it).
The only thing I can find is in DR124 Elimination. Riders can be eliminated for:
i. Cruelty (GR839).
4. Except as noted below, only the Judge at “C” may eliminate a competitor for a rule violation listed under DR120 or DR122, only from the test in question, and (except for late entry into the arena) only after the competitor has entered the arena. Members of the Ground Jury have no authority to eliminate under any other circumstances, except during a class or test, the Judge at “C” has the authority to eliminate for use of illegal equipment, non-compliance with protective headgear rules, not wearing a number, cruelty and abuse or leaving the arena without the judges’ permission. Authority for rule enforcement outside the competition ring rests solely with the Show Committee (see General Rules, GR1217). Competition Management/Show Committee has the authority to eliminate for use of illegal equipment or violations of protective headgear rules during a test that is discovered after the competitor has left the arena. Competition Management also has the authority to eliminate entries and/or remove individuals from the competition grounds for violations of protective headgear rules as described in DR120 and GR801.
So, the judge at C can excuse someone for cruelty or abuse, however, there is no clear definition of what constitutes cruelty or abuse. Trust me, they see bad hands, stiff backs and unsympathetic seats on a daily basis. Where exactly do we draw the line? Rules concerning the use of the whips, spurs and bit might make the line more identifiable. Smacking the horse with the whip after the final salute unless they are refusing to go forward should (I feel) be improper use of the whip. Take your temper and pack up your trailer, and have a nice day.
Dressage has an inordinate number of rules about saddlery, acceptable types of bits, spur design and length, whip length, and when you can carry one. Perhaps it is time that members become invested in setting a clear standard of what is considered abuse and who can act upon it.
Did you know that as a USEF member you can propose a rule change? This is the link to use: https://www.usef.org/compete/resources-forms/rules-regulations/rule-changes
Now, I am not suggesting that everyone on the planet propose a rule change. However, it would be nice if, as a collective group of caring people who are advocating for equine welfare, we could HELP the USDF define some standards that would support a judge, TD or steward in 1) addressing a competitor about their behavior and 2) eliminating them from a class or the competition if necessary.