Is Horse Sport at Risk?

Photo by Kat Smith on

I’ve been watching the clouds gather. The storm has slowly been building, but most people around me seemed unaware. The first claps of distant thunder have sounded, and it got some attention – but many still seem unaware of the storm that is coming. Those who have paid attention are either rejoicing or shrugging it off. Have you heard the storm moving in? If so, this will likely cover no new territory for you. But if you are not aware of the storm that is coming at equine sports, please pay attention. You cannot prepare for a storm that you do not know is coming.

For most of my lifetime there have been rumors that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would like to shed the equestrian sports. It seems that every decade or so the topic would come up again, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) would negotiate, make some changes to appease the IOC, and the talk would die down. Complaints along the way have included: too few countries competing (often attributed to the cost), too much space and expense for competition and housing facilities, not enough audience draw, the rule that allows one score to be dropped from a team, and more than I have forgotten. Concessions were made in the format of the Eventing competition which, along with the lowering of standards of qualification to accommodate more countries, have been cited by many as part of why the sport has been plagued by so many injuries and deaths. The musical freestyle was added to Dressage in response to the low audience problem. I was not alone in feeling that this would lead to a degradation of the quality of riding – and I’m not alone in feeling that it absolutely has. The IOC has their priorities and they are not the ones responsible for safeguarding the athletes, both human and equine, within these sports. That is down to the FEI, and many in the horseworld feel they have not always had the horses’ or riders’ best interests at heart when making concessions to the IOC.

In parallel to the questionable changes to the sports, originating from IOC pressure (changes that are sadly not limited to Olympic competition), many of us have watched a degradation in horse sport overall. Dressage horses, who once had among the longest competitive careers, are now plagued with injuries and many are retired at a young age. (They are the most frequent group to visit a local clinic that once rarely saw a one – not because they are more numerous, but because of the range of injuries once unheard of in that sport.) The quality of riding, the gadgets in use, the increased injuries of horses while in competition – all have left some of us worried for the sports we once loved. In small corners there have long been warnings that if the public ever understood the reality of what was happening to some of these horses the very pursuit of riding could be in danger. Then came the Tokyo Olympics held in 2021 (delayed due to COVID) – and several incidents that brought just that public awareness.

As a refresher, or if you happened to miss any of these, here are the three incidents I’ve seen referred to the most:

  • Jet Set – the 14 year old gelding on the Swiss Eventing team fell near the end of the course. The injuries he suffered were deemed irreparable and he was euthanized later that day.
  • Saint Boy – the horse was assigned to a German athlete in the Women’s Pentathlon, who was unable to get him around the course. The rider was seen whipping, spurring, and jerking on the horse in frustration; her trainer at one point punched the horse.
  • Kilkenny – the horse, competing on the Irish Showjumping team, suffered a major and obvious nosebleed on course. Neither the rider nor the FEI officials stopped the round and the horse finished with his chest spattered with his own blood. (Note that blood anywhere on the horse is supposed to be grounds for stopping the ride and disqualifying the rider from the competition.)

These incidents led to non-horse people weighing in on horse sport – and not with a positive view. This was the first time I have seen that in any significant way, outside of horse racing (which recently had its own bad public moment involving Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike). But these incidents not only got the attention of the public – they raised an alarm for the French National Assembly. France is scheduled to host the 2024 Olympics in Paris, and were alarmed enough at the incidents in Tokyo that they conducted their own study on how to improve equine welfare and submitted a 72-page report to the Paris 2024 Organizing Committee. Their report references the many pressures that are being brought to either reform or remove equestrian sports from the Olympics. Throughout the report the writers also explain basic aspects of horse behavior and biology for the readers who may not have equestrian knowledge as background for the recommendations. They also include scientific research to support the points of concern for equine welfare.

The writers of the report make no less than 46 recommendations to conducting the equestrian sports at the Paris Olympics. Not all of the recommendations are for changes. Some, such as for facilities, advocate for continuing what have been seen as good practices in previous games. The wide-ranging recommendations include:

  • Set up a “Welfare Committee”, made up of independent experts authorised to move freely throughout the Olympic site of the equestrian events, as part of a special “Equine Welfare at the Olympic Games” mission. (Recommendation #4)
  • Review the list of tack which, by its creative design or manufacture, can cause harm and discomfort to the horse, and prohibit its use in competition, in particular nosebands that increase the capacity to tighten (crank, lever, grackle, double, etc.) as well as flash nosebands in all disciplines. (Recommendation #8)
  • Eliminate bits that do not align with equine welfare, including banning elevator bits on cross-country and bits with twisted mouthpieces. (Recommendations #9 and 10)
  • Authorise riding without spurs in dressage, as is the case in all events. (Recommendation #16, and something I have long wished for)
  • Increased regulations and checks focused on doping and nerving. (Recommendations #19-25)
  • Return to teams of four with a “drop score” to relieve pressure on riders to continue when their horse is at risk. (Recommendation #32)
  • Create, apply, and report out an Equine Welfare scoring system to be evaluated and scored by the “Welfare Committee” (Recommendations #44 and 45)

“These recommendations will probably seem excessive to some professionals and insufficient to some animalists. This undoubtedly means that the cursor is well placed, reasonable and without excess….”

Horse Welfare Overhaul for Paris 2024, General Conclusion

I cannot overstate how important I think this report is and how critical that all involved in horse sports read the entire thing. Odds are good that if you read the entire report there will be some surprises for you. There were certainly a few for me, such as the use of hind tendon boots to encourage clear rounds in show jumping (Section 2.D). When I was competing in this sport, decades ago, that was not a specific “method” I’d ever seen or heard of. These surprises show just how thorough their effort was in compiling this report. It is an admirable effort, well worth reading, with a lofty and worthy goal.

“The Paris 2024 Olympic Games, which also want to be those of reason and moderation in terms of environmental impact, can therefore become an example for the following Olympic Games by putting equine well-being at the heart of its concerns.”

Horse Welfare Overhaul for Paris 2024

The French Assembly report also mentions a new book, I Can’t Watch Anymore: The Case for Dropping Equestrian from the Olympic Games, written by Julie Taylor a journalist who co-founded Written as an open letter to the IOC (a copy was sent to each member, financed by outside sales of the book) it outlines years of psychological and physical abuse of horses in sport. The book covers the gamut from drugs and nerving (cutting the nerves in the leg so the horse feels no pain) to the pretense of the sports having a global reach as the IOC intends them to have. The book has been spreading, even leading to a column on on the emotional and physical lives of sport horses. Her goal was to write about equestrian sport in a way that non-equestrians could understand. Too often, when the subject of sport horse treatment is raised, those within the industry explain issues away as if the public could not understand. Julie set out to dispel that idea and lay out the case quite clearly. This book is a culmination of years Julie spent trying to sound the alarm about horse sport and the abuses seen there. (Check out the videos and blog archive for some of that work, or find their videos on YouTube.)

Clearly, if we could trust the FEI and national federations there would be no issues leading to public outcry. The FEI’s own directives state they are the guardian of the horse’s welfare; yet, they summarily dismissed the French Assembly recommendations as “unnecessary”. Perhaps predictably, within a couple of weeks of rejecting that report, the FEI began forming its own committees to consider areas of equestrian sport, such as tack recommendations and the social license to operate. While that may sound like good news (and I hope it is) we have been down this road before. In 2004 it was in response to doping and abuse scandals (both of which still happen). In 2006 it was in response to complaints about rollkur – so they banned rollkur, but allowed hyperflexion (a stinking rose by any other name still stinks … apologies to The Bard). In 2010 they repeated the same formula to combat hyperflexion and welcome Low Deep and Round (LDR) (once again renaming a stinking rose). (All of this is laid out in I Can’t Watch Anymore.)

In order to fix a problem you first have to admit that there is one – but money is very good at masking problems. There are problems many of us within the industry have been pointing out for a very long time, but we are typically shouted down. The calls for change are no longer coming just “from inside the house.” Still, even with the FEI denial of a problem, there are signs of movement. At the recent CHIO in Aachen, Germany, three riders were eliminated for blood in the horse’s mouth. Among them was the highest ranked rider in the world, who was stopped mid-test by a judge who spotted the problem. That a judge was willing to take on the top rider in the world, in such a public matter, is a sign of change. Sadly, that it happened with three riders (all claiming the same accidental biting of lip/tongue) is a sign of the deplorable state of the sport. Recent reports out of other countries are showing that more attention is beginning to be paid. Several top competitions have eliminated unprecedented numbers of riders, if none quite as high profile as in Aachen. There have also been an unprecedented (in my memory) number of top riders pulling out of top Dressage competitions for vague reasons. Perhaps some are seeing the handwriting on the wall?

I have mixed emotions over the discussions around horses in sport. There is no doubt in my mind that reform is long overdue in nearly all areas of horse sport. I stopped being able to stomach most of the racing industry over twenty years ago. I spent too much time helping to put back together lovely young horses pushed too hard too young – never mind those who catastrophically broke down and ended their lives in the name of entertainment. As the years went on I watched each of the sports I’d competed in and loved get crueler and harder to stomach. Jumping and cross-country too often resemble wrestling matches. Pain and stress show on the faces of too many horses in all of the Olympic Equestrian sports – while audiences cheer and aspiring riders worship their medal winning heroes. There are, of course, the exceptions; but I have watched as the bad riding that used to be exceptions became more the rule, and the good riders a rare refreshing vision among the rest. Horses definitely do not deserve this treatment in the name of sport and entertainment.

The sport I once loved for the partnership it created and the way it made the horse more beautiful – now I cannot stand to watch it

That said, I have seen and experienced horse sport that does not corrupt the horse’s welfare. My first horse, Wicki, loved jumping, especially cross-country. I once injured myself early on-course. I did not have the strength to control the ride; I didn’t even have the use of one hand. Wicki could easily have avoided doing anything – yet he carefully navigated the course, going mainly from my voice, and safely carried us both over more than a dozen additional fences. I have watched gifted horse/rider combinations at the highest levels of all the sports. Riders who are quiet, light, considerate partners; horses who are relaxed, business-like, and enjoying their job. Horses are adaptable and can certainly enjoy a sport given the time to develop, understand, and adapt to the lifestyle. Sadly, I have watched the time aspect compressed while gimmicks, drugs, and bad training are used to make up for what time and consideration used to create.

“At the last Olympic Games in Tokyo, a Russian rider pulled so hard on the jaw that she pushed her saddle forward, relying on the big knee rolls of her saddle. These rolls, which are getting bigger and bigger when they were practically absent from dressage saddles before, are an invention of the “rollkur generation”: they serve to quadruple the force that riders can exert on the reins.”

Horse Welfare Overhaul for Paris 2024, Section VI Dressage

I have felt, for quite a while, that the equestrian sports no longer belong in the Olympics. Making concessions to the IOC to meet their needs, while ignoring the unique qualities and needs of our sport and the equine particpants has done damage. Perhaps there is a way back from that damage. But losing the Olympics, in my estimation, would not be the worst thing that can happen.

  • Dressage was never meant to be a crowd-pleasing flashy sport. It was meant to be a test of the quality of training. It is based upon principles that should improve the health, soundness, and longevity of the horse – not damage it.
  • Eventing is a very challenging sport for most Olympic venues. It should have a huge facility for cross-country. Instead, it gets pigeon-holed into partly open spaces, and often now has the course end in a stadium in order to sell tickets.
  • Pentathlon requires the athlete ride an unknown horse. This has become such a challenge in modern riding that it has been abandoned in Dressage and Show Jumping, where it used to be a standard part of some top competitions. Those are top equestrians who can no longer meet the challenge – imagine if that is only one of your sports, and you are a mid-level equestrian.
  • Show Jumping is perhaps the best suited to remain in the Olympics as it most closely adheres to “faster, higher, stronger” and takes much less to accommodate than Eventing. But the incident with Kilkenny clearly shows that reforms are needed there.

What I do know is that I can no longer stand the suffering I see whenever I try to watch these sports. We have to speak for the horse. If we, as equestrians, do not speak for the horse then the future of horse sport may be destroyed by the coming storm. Worse, there is a lot of discussion by the public on whether horses should be subjected to riding at all. In a recent survey in the U.K., 45% of respondents have never interacted with horses; 94% had little or no recent interactions with horses. As the general public moves further away from exposure to horses, incidents like the Tokyo Olympics and the Kentucky Derby will be increasingly put under a microscope with no romantic notion of horse sports to blur the view. PETA has already called for the complete banning of equestrian sport. Smirk at PETA if you like, but circuses in the U.S. no longer have animals largely due to their efforts and a changing public perception. (In the survey mentioned above, 20% of respondents already do not support horses used in sport of any kind.)

If we choose to defend the current practices, which are obviously unpleasant to the horse to those not indoctrinated into the club, we will eventually be seen as unworthy of our equine charges. However, if we show that we can put the horse’s welfare first, that we can find a balance of equestrian activity that honors the horse, that we can in fact govern ourselves – then perhaps horse sport can survive, and even thrive. Sadly, too much of the discussion within relevant organizations seems focused more on how to sway the public’s opinion, rather than how to actually make changes to the sport for the sake of the horse.

So, will the coming storm simply leave spots in the dust? Will it be enough to leave things clean and refreshed? Or will it end up building into a gullywasher that wipes everything away? Only time will tell how much this will change the equestrian world – but I do not believe that it is going away. Whatever your particular view on this topic, now is the time to act. Read the French Assembly report (English version linked below). If you are a member of a national equestrian federation that is connected to the FEI, make your voice heard. Write to the IOC or tag them on social media sites. I’ve been looking for ideas on ways to take action but I haven’t found any others yet. I’d love to hear any ideas you may have or come across. The horses deserve our support.


2 replies

  1. Thank you for this really informative article. I too think there’s an urgent need to reform, to show how horses are cared for and to get rid of any ambiguous potentially cruel practices. Your article lead me to the book The Compassionate Equestrian so thanks for that too!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s