My last few weeks have been consumed by training, competing and coaching at horse shows and no, I am not complaining. Even though there never seems to be enough hours in the day, I acknowledge that there are certainly less pleasant ways to make a living and spend your time.
With that said though, I have recently witnessed some treatment of horses at the last couple of shows that got me thinking about the often blurred lines between the use of whips and spurs to enhance your aids and hence your performance versus being instruments of abuse.
Anyone who knows me and certainly anyone who has followed my blog posts should know that I take my role as guardian and caretaker of my horses very seriously and think that everyone else should as well. Whether a horse is a pet, used for trail, a lesson horse or a high level show horse, I think that their standard of care and treatment should not differ and that includes how discipline is established.
As a trainer, I have dealt with horses of many different types of personality and at times serious temperament and discipline problems, more often than not caused by inexperienced or uneducated owners. I believe that horses, like children, need to be given clear boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and that they must understand that there will be consequences for stepping outside of those boundaries. I don't hesitate to correct a horse when needed but making a clear, firm correction versus the extreme use a whip or spurs are miles apart in my mind. To others it seems that perhaps, those lines are not so clear. I was at a horse show a few weeks ago with Uiver and we had a close encounter with an ugly scene that unsettled both of us.
I was warming up for my Prix St. George class and as is the usual case, the warm up was busy with horses and riders warmng up for classes in other rings and a few riders just schooling horses. There was a very well known and "respected" trainer from my area in the arena schooling a horse and he was obviously displeased with how the horse was performing. It appeared that he was trying to get the mare more active in her hind legs but I was not sure what, if any, movement he wanted her to do. I was going around the arena working some canter movements when this trainer hit this horse down her hind leg several times and hard enough with the dressage whip that it made a cracking sound. Uiver and I were relatively close when this happened and the sound scared him enough to send him bolting away for a few strides. It did not take much to get him back under control but he was clearly rattled and looking fearfully back toward the other trainer. When I put him back to work, he was nervous and hesitant to go back to that end of the arena so to calm him I just avoided that area. I certainly couldn't blame him, it had startled me as well. We went on to do our test and had a solid ride scoring a 65 but even when I went back to the arena to cool Uiver down, he was leery of that end of the arena.
So that brings me to the question - was that discipline or abuse? Even if the "correction" was warranted, I feel it was completely inappropriate in a horse show setting and cedrtainly in a crowded warm-up arena. Over the years I have been blessed with very sensitive, and slightly "hot" horses that usually require more finesse than drive. Others would consider this type of a horse more of a curse, but I seem to mesh the best with horses that need more codling than force. I am not against the use of a whip or spurs but I tend to use them sparingly only as an extension of my leg aide and rarely ride with both. I tend to ride Uiver with either/or depending on what we are working on but at shows don't use a whip at all since they are not allowed for FEI dressage competition anyway. Now with Uiver, and before with my older horse Pete, the most I would do with the dressage whip it to tap to ask (not demand) for a little more effort or encouragement. If I was ever to hit Pete the way that trainer did I am sure I would have been launched into orbit and you could not get within 10 feet of my other horse, Hank, whip a whip or spurs because of the abuse he endured in his past.
So what do you all think, should I have reported this trainer?? Do you use whips when you ride/compete and how do you draw the line between discipline and mistreatment? In Dressage competition today they do check rider's spur and the horse's side for spur marks at the completion of your ride, but what about what takes place in the warm up?? I am interested to hear your thoughts.