Our columnist looks at ways that some professionals intentionally or unintentionally mistreat their horses.
I applaud the U.S. Equestrian Federation, its president Murray Kessler and CEO Bill Moroney for taking a hard stance against drug issues in our hunter and jumper disciplines. What a breath of fresh air and well past time!
But there are even worse offenders—both intentional and unintentional—when it comes to abusing horses.
I hope you will be horrified to learn the practices employed by some top professionals in our industry. Tying horses’ heads to their tails because a horse was fresh or spooked is inhumane. What is the horse supposed to learn from that? Breaking their spirit and creating a glassy-eyed horse that is withdrawn with no personality or individuality is cruelty.
This method of torture destroys a horse, mentally and physically. This, to me, is far worse than drugging a horse. Those guilty of these practices are worse criminals than the cheaters who use drugs to train and compete horses. I hope the powers that be in our federation take these people down as well.
No Head Cranking
Speaking of tying a horse’s head down, we need to become more educated regarding what “on the bit” really means and what its purpose is!
Let’s start this conversation with the German Training Scale.
Collection should always be the final step of educated training in a horse.
Starting at the base of classical training is RHYTHM. This means the horse should have three true gaits and exhibit them in a steady and consistent rhythm. Next comes SUPPLENESS and RELAXATION. This consists of a relaxed, happy horse that is supple laterally and longitudinally. Then comes CONTACT and CONNECTION. This involves the horse accepting the rider’s contact of leg, seat and hands and responding to the aids.
After this is accomplished, the next step is IMPULSION. This is when the horse learns to use his hindquarters for power and propulsion. Next comes STRAIGHTNESS. This includes being balanced on a straight line as well as on a turn. Straightness means the horse is even on both the rider’s hands and both the rider’s legs. Straightness is important because it creates maximum power at take-off to jump or for high-level dressage movements.
Finally comes COLLECTION. By definition the correctly educated horse transfers weight backwards and engages the hindquarters (impulsion), lightening the forehand, rounding his back, while remaining straight, connected, supple and relaxed in proper rhythm!
Getting the horse’s head lowered, cranked in or hyper flexed is no part of the recipe.
So why are so many people obsessed with getting a horse’s head down?
They resort to draw reins, bungies, harsh bits, tighter nose bands, big spurs, bigger whips and all sorts of contraptions. This is pure ignorance regarding the reason a horse should be in a frame to begin with. People are so blindsided by watching others, right or wrong, but they don’t fully understand the correct process and result.
First of all, because horses are prey animals, any correlation to feeling trapped triggers a fight-or-flight mechanism. So trying to pull a horse’s head down, rather than pushing a horse up into the hand from a rider’s leg, is going to result in a negative outcome.
The horse’s poll should always be the highest point of the topline in our hunter, jumper and dressage disciplines. Correct contact varies from young horses that should learn to accept light, steady contact with the nose in front of the vertical plane, to a high level dressage horse, that requires a stronger, more compressed frame originating from hindquarter impulsion carried forward with a supple back, into the rider’s steady elastic hand. Somehow this classical training method got lost in the translation.
Unfortunately, a major training fail is teaching a horse to get behind the bit. This happens when the timing of the rider’s release is late or nonexistent. The horse searches for relief from the pressure of the rider’s hand and bit and, receiving none, learns to duck behind the bridle to escape. Once this behavior is learned, it is nearly impossible to untrain. This is a serious fault in horse-rider communication and heavily penalized in equitation and medal classes. It is considered far less of a fault to have a horse above the bit than behind the bit.
If the horse’s face is behind the vertical, it’s wrong. If the middle of a horse’s neck is the highest part of the topline, it’s wrong. The problem seems to be that the focus is on the head being down instead of the hindquarter being well underneath the horse, creating impulsion with an elevated back and wither, creating a light forehand and an uphill balance. The more stress put on demanding the head be artificially down, the more downhill and unbalanced a horse becomes. Not only is this a physiologically stressful position for the horse, but this also is quite physically damaging to a horse. I always question the rider’s influence on a horse that needs constant body work, massage and chiropractic work to keep his back, neck and shoulders pain-free.
German veterinarian and horseman Gerd Heuschmann, in partnership with German Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol, presented their findings on the hot topic of rollkur in dressage, an exaggerated flexion of a horse’s poll and neck, riding the horse low, deep and overly round. Besides the psychological damage to the horse, feeling trapped and panicked, it also can restrict airways. Additionally, the harm done to a horse’s muscular development, movement and relaxation of the topline can be disastrous. The attention these findings received led to an Annex XIII of the Fédération Equestre Internationale Stewards Manual for dressage in 2010, outlawing the practice.
I would highly recommend Heuschmann’s book Tug Of War: Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage, as well as the DVD that goes with it, “If Horses Could Speak.”
Draw Rein Debates
In 2015, Switzerland banned draw rein use on horses, except in prize-giving ceremonies, for similar reasons of abuse and psychological distress. Draw reins also restrict a horse’s ability to raise its head, which is a natural instinct as they sense danger. Other European countries followed suit.
USEF recently passed a rule outlawing the use of draw reins and German martingales on pony jumpers ridden by juniors at any time while on the showgrounds. But is that enough?
In 2016 there were numerous studies on the effects of tight nosebands. The stress caused by tying a horse’s mouth shut drastically increases heart rate, pain and panic. Furthermore, a low noseband can effectively choke off a horse’s airway as well as cause tissue damage.
Another interesting facet of a horse’s makeup is their field of vision. Because horses see out of each eye, they have mainly monocular vision. Their sight range is nearly 360 degrees. They only have blind spots directly behind them, as well as directly in front of them. But their level of sight is slightly below the eyes and upward. So when a horse’s head is artificially forced down, so is their sight field. Making a horse keep his head down as he moves forward is no different than forcing a human to look at his feet as he runs. I for one want my horse to be focused on the jump ahead, not the ground, when I’m on course!
Last rant: Spraying a horse in the face on the wash racks and earing them down to clip their ears is barbaric. How would you feel if you went to get a haircut and the stylist put you in a headlock to cut your hair, then rinsed the shampoo out of your hair by spraying you in the face? Then when you rebelled, they pulled your hair so you would stay still?
I’m not even going to touch on the longeing debacle of running horses around in small circles on their forehand to exhaust them. It’s so very destructive to their joints, tendons, ligaments and bones.
There are so many things we do, consciously or unconsciously, to our poor horses that hurts them physically or emotionally. We can all do better by becoming more aware and more educated.
But I’m still perplexed: What is this obsession with cranking the horse’s head down?
Julie Winkel has been a licensed hunter, equitation, hunter breeding and jumper judge since 1984. She has officiated at prestigious events such as Devon (Pa.), the Pennsylvania National, the Washington International (D.C.), Capital Challenge (Md.), the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Upperville (Va.). She has designed the courses and judged the equitation finals.
She has trained and shown hunters and jumpers to the top level and was a winner of multiple grand prix competitions and many hunter championships.
Winkel serves as the co-chair of the USEF Licensed Officials Committee and chairman of the USEF Continuing Education Committee, chairman of the USHJA Judges Task Force and the USHJA Officials Education Committee. She serves on the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Committee, Trainer Certification and Zone 10 Jumper Committees. She also sits on the Young Jumper Championships board of directors.
Winkel owns and operates Maplewood Inc., a 150-acre training, sales and breeding facility, standing grand prix jumpers Osilvis and Cartouche Z in Reno, Nev. Maplewood Inc. also offers a year-round internship program for aspiring horse professionals.
She writes a monthly column for Practical Horseman’s “Conformation Clinic” and is a contributing columnist to Warmbloods Today magazine as well as an EquestrianCoach.com blogger.