Monday, May. 20, 2024

Shaping The Future Of Horse Welfare With Education, Justice And Compassion

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For as long as I can remember, horse welfare has not only been a cornerstone of discussions within the equestrian community but also a personal journey of advocacy and action for me. As I child, I was moved by Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty,” written in the 1800s to expose horse cruelty and to prevent these unjust acts. I believe reading that book helped foster the love I have for horses and imprinted on my psyche the importance of treating horses with kindness and respect.

The oldest show in our country is also rooted in horse welfare: The Upperville Horse Show (Virginia) was established in 1853 by Col. Richard Henry Dulany to promote better care of horses after witnessing the improper care of young horses. Both the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association have emphasized the paramount importance of horse welfare in their mission statements, underscoring a shared commitment that I, too, have woven into the fabric of my daily interactions with these magnificent creatures.

During this winter, the topic of horse welfare was thrust into the spotlight through a series of town halls hosted by former USHJA President Mary Knowlton. Knowlton, at the U.S. Equestrian Annual Meeting (Kentucky), presented a vital distinction that resonates deeply within the equestrian sphere: the difference between animal rights and animal welfare.

She clarified, utilizing illustrative slides, that animal rights engage with the ethical debate on the human use of animals, challenging the very foundation of equestrian pursuits. In contrast, animal welfare focuses on enhancing the quality of life for animals under human care, striving to minimize their suffering. This distinction is crucial for framing the conversation within the equestrian community and the public. It’s not about whether we should engage with horses in sport and companionship but how we do so responsibly and ethically.

In my experience, the equestrian community at large strives to uphold these principles, dedicating themselves to providing the best possible care for horses. From ensuring they have proper housing and nutrition to compassionate training and access to health care, we collectively respect and value the privilege of working with horses.

Personally, I’ve always aimed to treat my horses not just as partners in sport but as members of my family, deserving of love, respect and dignity.

Longeing: A Tool For Communication Or Misuse?

A pressing issue raised at the USEF Annual Meeting was the misuse of longeing, especially within the hunter/jumper discipline. Longeing, when done correctly, is invaluable for establishing communication, aiding in conditioning, and facilitating rehabilitation.

I’ve used longeing as one of the first tools to establish a connection with my horses, helping them understand voice commands, balance and proper transitions. However, the misuse of longeing—turning it into a tool for exhaustion or punishment—is also something I’ve witnessed and vehemently opposed. The dark side of longeing reveals itself when it’s employed improperly, such as “longeing to death” or excessively long sessions at high speeds on tight circles. Witnessing these practices at shows has been disheartening: horses galloping fast on a small circle with the handler chasing them with a whip; being chased with a bag on the end of the whip (which can be dangerous and frightening to other horses in the longeing area); horses on the incorrect lead, or cross-cantering and being chased (I saw one horse fall like this, and the groom just chased it up off the ground and continued longeing without even checking to see if he was OK).

Longeing can be a helpful tool for horsemanship, but it also contains the potential for misuse and requires proper education from handlers. Mollie Bailey Photo

The concern about proper longeing is not new. In the 2009 USHJA Trainer Certification Program manual, longeing is listed as an effective way to start young horses under saddle but follows up that “at no time should the training inflict physical harm on the horse. Training should never endanger the well-being of horse or handler.”

There is also a chapter on the benefits and harms of longeing, including the statement, “Longeing should never be used as a means of exhausting a horse into submission before a ride … Longeing is not a means of punishment, and great care should be taken that it never becomes a means of inflicting mental or physical abuse.” I am sure the new USHJA Instructor Credential coursework will have similar guidance.

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The USHJA Horse and Rider Advocates Committee has been putting out information and educational resources on longeing since at least 2017. In July 2017 Louise Taylor wrote, “Longeing Needs To Come Full Circle” for In Stride magazine. This is an excellent piece that can still be accessed on the USHJA website.

USHJA followed up with producing videos, both in English and Spanish, called “Longeing With Purpose.” These videos also can be accessed on the website. These educational resources, which are free, have been produced and written by qualified horsemen.

Despite these educational efforts, the persistence of longeing abuse led to the introduction of specific rules aimed at curtailing these practices. In 2023, the USEF approved two rules written by the USHJA that are crucial steps toward ensuring the safety and well-being of our equine companions.

First, under the horse welfare sections of hunter, jumper and equitation rules, the following language has been added to prohibited acts: “lunging a visibly exhausted horse”; “riding or lunging an obviously lame horse”; “chasing a horse with a lunge whip or other inappropriate use of the whip”; prohibiting the use of a lunge whip with any type of appendage or attachment “including but not limited to bags and flags”; “excessive and or disruptive cracking of the whip.”

The second rule of great importance can be found in HJ106 Riding and Lunging Areas, which includes this new language: “All horses being lunged in designated lunging areas or anywhere else on show grounds, must have its show number attached to the horse or the individual [lunger]. Any horse without its correct number will be asked to leave the area.”

The implementation of educational initiatives, alongside the establishment of clear and enforceable rules, represents a balanced strategy that can significantly improve the lives of horses in our care. So far this year the stewards have been doing an excellent job, and the addition of these new rules have been helping.

I’ve also had personal experiences that underscore the importance of speaking up for those without a voice. For instance, a few winters ago in Ocala, Florida, I encountered a young girl longeing a horse in distressing heat. The horse was clearly exhausted, and I felt compelled to intervene. Approaching the situation with empathy and concern, I was able to persuade her to give the horse the rest it desperately needed.

In another instance, witnessing improper longeing practices by a groom that worked for a trainer I knew well prompted me to engage in a direct conversation with her about the welfare of her horses. This led to a productive dialogue and a commitment to educating her staff on correct longeing techniques.

At HITS Ocala this year, a woman started to longe behind my barn and paddocks with a bag attached to the end of her whip. This activity upset a horse in my grooming stall, so I told the handler that she was upsetting my horse, that the bag on the whip was now illegal, and asked her to stop or go somewhere else. She left but came back the next day with the same whip and a new attitude that was not receptive to our concerns.

Because she was wearing a number, we reported her to show management and the stewards. The stewards spoke with the trainer and then continued to check in to make sure that this wasn’t happening for the remainder of the show. These experiences have reinforced my belief in the power of constructive communication and the role of personal responsibility in advocating for horse welfare.

Looking Ahead: Fostering A Culture Of Compassion

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As we look to the future, the challenge of ensuring horse welfare demands a collective effort—a commitment to not only educate within our community but also to engage with the public, demystifying our practices and showcasing our dedication to the ethical treatment of horses.

Social media will not provide a solution. Video clips can be taken out of context, and videos posted online can take an emotional life of their own not based on the whole truth. Also, as noted by steward Cricket Stone, animal rights activists may use videos highlighting a few bad actors in our sport to condemn our community as a whole.

For guidance on how to report abuse, read “Safeguarding Our Sport: Reporting Horse Welfare Concerns And Other Rule Violations” on USHJA.org. It is not that difficult to contact the stewards and/or show management. Also, you can simply call USEF at 859-225-6956 or email epratt@usef.org for advice on reporting.

“Let us be vigilant in our efforts to educate ourselves and others, relentless in our pursuit of justice for horses, and compassionate in our interactions with these noble animals.”

Sue Lyman

Maybe it’s time for us to design a secondary, required SafeSport-type program tailored to the needs of horses. Topics could include proper and improper longeing techniques, the distinction between discipline and abuse, what to do when you witness abuse, schooling ring etiquette, showing in poor quality air or heat conditions, and how to avoid over-showing and over-jumping.

Our journey toward improved horse welfare is a testament to the love and respect we hold for these partners, underscoring our responsibility to advocate for their well-being at every turn.

Moreover, my personal journey of advocacy has taught me the importance of individual action. Each conversation I’ve had, whether it’s with a young rider in Florida or a seasoned trainer in Kentucky, has reinforced the idea that change starts with us. By adopting a proactive stance and engaging with our community, we can create an environment that fosters respect, care and compassion for all horses.

I am issuing a call to action for fellow equestrians to embrace our role as guardians of horse welfare with earnestness and integrity. Let us be vigilant in our efforts to educate ourselves and others, relentless in our pursuit of justice for horses, and compassionate in our interactions with these noble animals. Together, we can ensure that the legacy of equestrian sports is one of honor, respect, and unwavering commitment to the well-being of our equine partners.

The journey toward improved horse welfare is continuous, paved with challenges and opportunities for growth. Yet, it is a journey that I, alongside many others in the equestrian community, am proud to undertake. For in championing the cause of horse welfare, we not only enrich the lives of horses but also deepen the bonds that unite us as equestrians, reinforcing the timeless values of respect, empathy and stewardship that define our sport.


Between Rounds columnist Sue Lyman has been riding, training and showing hunters in the Middleburg, Virginia, area since 1985. During this time she broke, started, retrained and competed many successful horses including Simbalu, Rox Dene, Irregardless, Townsend and All In One. She served on the USHJA Professionals Committee from 2008-2012. She has served on the USHJA Horse And Rider Advocates Committee since 2013 and became chair of that committee in 2021. 


This article originally appeared in the August 2023, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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