Let’s not talk about Mark Todd, because, honestly, it’s not about him.
It’s about all of us. It’s about the horse industry; it’s about the sports industry. It’s about what most of us came up learning, how we learned to ride and train, and it’s about the collective defensive reaction to having those things be called into question.
Instead of taking this opportunity to do some soul searching and examining “age-old” and common methods of training, we’re seeing a general justification and defense of what we learned and how we train that’s not acknowledging the need for evolution in horsemanship and horse training.
It’s similar to the #MeToo movement: What used to be an acceptable practice, one that took place in a not-so-secret way, is not acceptable anymore. Instead of defending it, we need to do better, be better, and be honest about bad behavior when we see it, regardless of what that person may have accomplished in their career.
Look, I used to be the person who was put on the “naughty” horses to get them to do whatever they weren’t doing, and there wasn’t a practice or method that was off limits.
I was the strong, brave guy who could manhandle a horse into doing what it was supposed to do. And, growing up, this was how people worked through things. This is often how I still see things being worked through by many at every horse show or schooling event I attend. I actually get pretty depressed and sad for horses when I go off property because of how I see them being “trained.”
Personally, I got sick of being an “enforcer,” and that sent me on a different path. I met a few incredible horse people who based their training methods and techniques on seeking to understand horses as prey animals. Learning to interpret their behaviors and reactions through that lens opened my eyes. It helped me start to see the why behind undesired behaviors, instead of seeing those behaviors as disobediences or horses just being jerks.
Once you try to understand horses as horses and not as animals possessing human emotions and motivations, it makes it much easier to find ways to train them without force or violence. Approaching my horses this way gives me a much more powerful feeling than the feeling of dominating them that I learned growing up. Now, I strive to create partnership, understanding and happiness in my horses, and it’s not worth doing if that’s not my end goal and evident throughout the training process.
Don’t get me wrong: I am human, and I can still get frustrated and react badly in the moment. I certainly don’t get it right all the time. I am not above reproach, but I no longer justify those mistakes by blaming the horse, or act as if I used a defensible training method. Instead, I recognize that I lost my patience and need to do better next time, and I hold myself accountable.
If people saw us training dogs with some of same methods used with horses, which are commonplace and deemed acceptable by many horse people, we would all be charged with animal cruelty. Why do we accept this treatment of horses? Is it because they’re big and strong and potentially dangerous? As the uproar over the modern pentathlon (where a German coach hit a horse) at this summer’s Olympic Games showed us, the general public has no appetite for anything that resembles a human losing patience and taking their frustrations out on animals. And as people who claim to love horses (and if we’d like to see equestrian sports continue in the Olympic Games), neither should we.
The truth is that calling horses dangerous, disobedient, or any other name, is just a way for us to justify our lack of evolution and progress in horse training. Instead of admitting that what used to be acceptable is no longer OK, we are excusing and defending our own lack of understanding of how horses process and learn. We are admitting that we lack the patience and skill to train horses to be willing partners without resorting to forceful methods.
Just because that is the way it’s always been done doesn’t make it right.
I’m not going to sit here and say whips and spurs are abusive training tools, but the difference between training and abuse depends on how they’re being used.
Continuing to practice and justify these kinds of methods doesn’t make us villains worthy of being strung up in the public square, but bringing these things out of the shadows and into the harsh light will hopefully help us all seek a better way to train and evolve as horsepeople, because our horses deserve better, and the continuation of our sport depends on it.
Matt Brown is a lifelong horseman and student of the sport of three-day eventing. He is a five-star competitor and has represented the U.S. as a member of Nations Cup teams at Aachen (Germany) and Boekelo (the Netherlands). He was an alternate for both the 2015 Pan American Games (Canada) and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
He and his wife, Cecily Clark, work side by side developing dressage and eventing horses, as well as helping students achieve their goals. They base their business in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, and spend their winters in Aiken, South Carolina.