Friday, October 30, 2009


This week I did something I have never done before: I spoke up to complete strangers in defense of a horse.

It all started when I received one of those mass emails that circulate the internet. The subject line read FUNNY!!! and there was a link to a video on YouTube followed with a prompt to watch the film in slow motion to really get a good laugh.

The video was of a man, a total beginner, riding a very well trained jumping horse in an actual jumping competition. The result of this combination was absolutely appalling. The jumps were relatively high, but the horse cleared them with grace despite the full grown man hanging on his mouth and pounding on his back the whole way. Only once did the horse deny a jump and when he did, he was punished with the whip, after which he continued to jump is heart out until the end.

After watching the video I was stunned: this was supposed to be funny? Where was the joke? All I could see was a suffering horse, forced and humiliated by a human being.

I thought about it for a day, but no matter which way I looked at it, I realized it was time to SAY something, DO something. I know, pretty idealistic of me, but once I had made up my mind, I couldn’t stop myself. I wrote an email and replied to all. Here is my letter.

Hi everyone,
I realize most of you don’t even know me, but I was one of the people on X’s email list which means I, too, got this “funny” video. I usually don’t do this, but I have recently decided to stop living in silence and speak up, mainly because I want to speak for those who don’t have human words for us to hear.
Did you laugh when you watched the video? Or, did you, too, find the video highly disturbing and sad. I thought it a good example of how people behave with horses – with not a lot of consideration for the animal. You may look at the man on the video and think that you are different than him, perhaps you know how to ride really well or you (think you) never hit your horse with a whip like he did, but in my experience there are not a lot of humans out there who don’t take advantage of these beautiful animals in one way or the other. I certainly have and I could bet money that you have, too. It may not be much more than putting a bit in their mouth or kicking them with spurs when they don’t go, but the act is there, nevertheless. It all stems from the same school of thought where horses must tolerate us and obey us, no matter what.
Who ever gave us the permission to ride these animals? Who ever gave us the authority to use them as sports equipment? Yep, nobody. We took the right, because we figured that since we are the self-appointed leaders of the world, we can do whatever we please. For example go and jump horses over fences when we clearly are incapable of riding over them ourselves. Pretty selfish of us, don’t you think? And not that funny.
Anyways, I hope this letter (and video) makes you think, if nothing else, of what horses have to endure from us humans on a daily basis. Let’s all try to be a little more aware of what is happening to the horses in the world and perhaps one day these animals will get the respect and kindness they deserve.

I wasn’t sure what would happen when I pressed “send”, but I did it anyway. I hoped that at least one person would stop to think, at least someone would make a connection and see the world differently.
I didn’t get as many responses as I had expected, but the ones I did get, varied from utterly hostile to somber agreement. One email, however, in particular shocked me, because it made me realize what an uphill battle being on the horse’s side is and continues to be.

Here is an excerpt from the email:
“I love my horse… he is my friend, and my partner, because without him, I am not a horse person. Yes, I will hit him if he needs it, I don't need him to bite me because he doesn't realize that I am NOT a horse, and that biting me is unacceptable. While I have respect and love for him, I do believe that I, as his person, outrank him in the hierarchy of life… As I am sure you are aware, horses don't actually want to be in charge, they are happy to give that control to us. Anyway, yes, I did feel badly for that horse [on the video], but yes, I also laughed.“

I will hit him if he needs it. Wow. I had never realized that there actually was someone who believed that horses needed hitting and by using violence, they were actually doing them a favor. I always thought people hit horses because they couldn’t control their own anger. This was certainly the case for me long time ago. I knew hitting was wrong, but short of having any other means to communicate at the time, I reverted to violence and then felt horrible afterwards. But to actually believe it is alright to use violence?

…because he doesn’t realize that I am NOT a horse… It is always surprising to see how many people, who have obviously spent a lot of time with horses, think horses are not very intelligent. No, they don’t speak English, or any other human language, but this doesn’t mean they don’t communicate; they don’t have emotions, thoughts, ideas, awareness. Biting is one way for them to say something, but so many people don’t take it as a message, but as a punishable act. This is, of course, closely linked to the fact that most people believe they should control the horse because they are above horses “in the hierarchy of life” mentioned in this email as well. In fact, most humans seem to think we are the king of pretty much everything: animals, nature, the world and in some case even each other. Looking at the current environmental and political predicament we are in, we can see where this thinking has taken us…

Perhaps I have had too much faith in the human race, perhaps this path I have taken is much less traveled than I originally thought. I know we can’t all think the same; it’s just an impossible fantasy. But could I dream of kindness? Could I dream that some day it would be considered abuse instead of training to hit a horse, that some day a man like the one on the video would be disqualified from the competition on terms of abuse, that videos like this would no longer circulate the web as funny?

Could I dream of kindness?

~ K
If you want to see the video for yourself, go to

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bone spurs

The horse dentist came to check Little Love’s teeth a few weeks ago. I wasn’t there, but I heard from her owner that Little Love’s mouth was doing well and there was no longer noticeable irritation on the gums. There were, however, visible bone spurs on the “bone bars” where the bit had sat for some ten years before she transferred to the bitless bridle.

This information leaves me stunned. It’s not that I haven’t known about the possibility of bone spurs before, I have read Dr. Cook’s Metal in the Mouth and seen the pictures of horse skulls – along with the bone spurs. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? When a metal piece rubs back and forth on the gum and bone for years some abnormalities are bound to happen.

I watch the women and men at the barn ride their horses in the arena and cannot but notice the bared gums, the open mouths, the tongues hanging on the side, the tense muscles on the faces of the horses. Do these horses too have bone spurs? Did any of the horse I rode during the past three decades have bone spurs? All of them?

Dr. Cook writes in Metal in the Mouth that “[the] survey of 74 jaw bones in 4 museum collections, from horses 5 years old or older, has shown that bone spurs on the bars (generally both bars) were present on 55 of the specimens, or 74% (Cook 1999e). As some of the 74 horses were feral and had been bit-free all their lives (the feral horses had no bone spurs), the real incidence of the problem in the bitted horses was actually greater than 74%.”

Suddenly I remember my beloved friend Socks and how he used to bare his front teeth when we were doing dressage and how I bought a two piece noseband to keep his mouth closed. I think of Hunter who used to curl himself under to lose contact with the rider and then take off when you regained the contact. I think of Sebastian and how he played with the bit, jingling it back and forth and De La Chance who hung his tongue out and tossed his head. These are all signs of discomfort.

Why is it that we are so innovative when it comes to other areas of our lives, but when it comes to horses, we hang on to thousand year old traditions tooth and nail?

I recently was reading a horse book my son had brought home from the library and on the page where they were talking about equipment, there was a picture of a snaffle bit from 490 BC. Apart from the darkened color of the metal, it looked exactly like every other snaffle bit I see in the tack room of the barn next door. For at least 2500 years the snaffle bit has stayed the same? Yet during just the last century we have managed to create trains, cars and airplanes, invent the television, radio and internet, cure lethal diseases and visit the moon among other things?

And even now, in the age of change and critical thinking, when I tell people about the harmful effects of the bit, they nod and say: “But if it truly is so bad, why does everyone then use it?” Why? Because it works so well – for us humans.

Little Love’s owner has slowly started to use the bit again, because, I believe, she is encouraged by how accepting of it her pain-free horse now is. I can see that it is tempting, as riding the mare’s big and powerful movements is a lot easier when you can rely on the “control” of the bit, instead of your body. “I’m only doing it once or twice a week,” she defends her actions as if this makes a difference. And I suppose it does. Causing pain to an animal only once a week is definitely better than causing it every day. But if I told you I beat my dog only on Tuesdays, would you think it was alright?

I can understand people’s resistance to my bitless ideas. I agree, it is scary, because once you give it a little more than a minute of your thought it hijacks your entire brain. Not many people want to look in the mirror and admit they have been causing pain to their horse. I should know; I used the bit for over thirty years. Heck, I have even used the double bridle, draw reins, side reins, standing martingales, crank nose straps and what not. What does that make me? Ignorant? Stupid? Cruel?

Perhaps I was all that and now I am like a recovering alcoholic, admitting to my past mistakes, apologizing to the appropriate parties and trying to redeem myself through all the guilt that weighs me down on a daily basis. I know I can’t change what I have done in the past, but I can try to change the future even if it means I have to do it one rider and one horse at a time.

Growth is the only evidence of life. ~John Henry Newman, Apologia pro vita sua, 1864