Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good boy

Put your head down for the halter.
Stand still in the aisle.
Stop chewing on the lead rope.
Give me your feet.
Stop nipping at me when I tighten the girth.
Open your mouth for the bit.
Close your mouth to tighten the noseband.
Stop moving your head.

Stand still, for crying out loud, can’t you see I’m on the mounting block. Don’t pull on the reins. No backing up. Let go of the whip, it’s not yours. Stop nipping at my leg when I mount.

Go. Move forward energetically, with impulsion, not like an old cow, be a horse, for once.
Stop. There is nothing in the corner of the arena, just like there wasn’t anything yesterday or any day before that, so stop being stupid and get back to work or else.
Go. We’ll be in this arena until you do what I say even if it takes me all night.
Stop. First I have a bad day at the office and now you have to be a little shit.
Go. I don’t have time for games; I can get the draw reins, if I have to.

Stand still when I put the cooler on. Stop rubbing your face on your leg, it’s such an irritating habit. Don’t slobber my jacket, I just washed it. Stop chewing on the reins. Walk slower. Walk faster.

Stand still in the aisle while I take the tack off.
I s a i d s t i l l.
Give me your head.
Give me your feet.
Give me your soul.
Hey! Stop nipping at me, I’m only trying to brush you. Stop. That’s it. Crossties are for horses who just won’t listen. It’s your own fault.

Don’t run through the door. Watch my feet. Watch me. And don’t roll in your box with the cooler on, you get straw everywhere and it’s such a nuisance, I don’t want to have to brush you again. Stand still while I change the blanket. Put your head down to take off the halter. No, you can't leave, you need to stay in the box.  Move your head. 
Get away from me.

Hey! That hurt.

Who’s my boy?
Aaaww, you are so cute. Mommy’s got a bucket with food in it. Mommy’s got some carrots. I have to go now, but I’ll be back at the same time tomorrow.
Be good. I love you so much.
You are such a good boy - the best.

God loved the birds and invented trees.  Man loved the birds and invented cages. - Jacques Deval, Afin de vivre bel et bien


Sunday, February 21, 2010


When written in Chinese the word "crisis" is composed of two characters - one represents danger and the other represents opportunity. ~John F. Kennedy, address, 12 April 1959

Long time ago I discovered, thru trial and error, that Little Love is not comfortable in the arena with certain horses and riders. And neither am I. So, to avoid uncomfortable situations, I try to go to the barn at times when I think other people won’t be there. A good time is lunch, since lunch is when normal people eat instead of riding their horses. Or at least the people we want to avoid.

But this is not an airtight plan. Sometimes we get unlucky.

On Wednesday when we entered the arena, Mister Y was longing his horse on one end and Madame X was riding her dressage horse at the other end, practicing shoulder in at the walk. My heart sank, I hadn’t been in the arena with either person for months and that was no coincidence, it was a conscious choice.

A little voice inside my head told me to turn around and leave, but I ignored it. In hindsight, I realize the voice I heard probably belonged to Little Love, she is definitely smarter than I am when it comes to this sort of stuff. And usually I try to hear her, listen to her, but this time I felt like we didn’t have a choice, she needed to have a chance to move before going out to walk on the slippery trails. And how bad could it be, 15 minutes in the arena? 

The situation seemed calm for the first five minutes until Madam X decided to practice passage and piaffe with her mare. The only way for her to get her horse to perform anything resembling either movement was to smack the horse with her long dressage whip several times in quick and sharp successions. It sounded like a machine gun going off: tah-tah-tah-tah or rather whip-whip-whip-whip. At the same time she held the reins tightly, making sure her horse couldn’t escape from underneath her.

The noise of the whip made Little Love’s eyes widen and her body shake. She spun around me nervously, the whites of her eyes flashing towards the dressage horse who was doing her best to figure out what the rider wanted. The look on the dressage horse’s face was tense. 

Madam X was now in full training mode. The whip was smacking continuously, making little whistling and clicking sounds. I counted the whip slashes per round. 16. 27. 41. Forty-one?!! Her horse bucked and bared its teeth, but Madam X kept at it, encouraged by the few uptight passage-like steps she felt in between. Mister Y’s horse started tearing around on the circle, trying in turn to free himself from the tightly adjusted Chambon that tied his head down between his knees.

Little Love, who at this point had lost most of her emotional control, suddenly stood all the way up above me. It was impressive; she’s a tall horse when she rears. She came down and looked at me. “It’s time to leave – now,” she told me. “Now.” Then she reared again and again, her movement very expressive, panicky. After the fourth rear she came down and whirled around me; her neck rock hard from fear, her eyes starting to glaze over. I remained quiet, calm, trying to assure her the whip was not for her. But it was too late, she was going to that place she sometimes goes to; the place where she is all alone with her demons.

Mister Y yelled at his freaked out horse, then he yelled at rearing Little Love and kicked sand at our direction. Was he trying to be helpful? Madam X whiped her horse so fast that I could no longer count the slashes, they all blended into one big one. Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, I could feel Little Love’s pain, her terror, her memory of something that once was.

We left the arena as fast as we could, we were both shaking, but Lilo was shaking more than I was. I went outside and hand-walked her in the frozen outdoor arena, talking to her about what had happened, the verbal and physical abuse we had witnessed, the feelings it had triggered in both of us, but especially Little Love.

Fifteen minutes later she was calm enough for us to manage a walk on the icy roads outside, but it took me hours, days to recover from what happened. Not only was I once again sickened by the abuse I had witnessed, but I was floored by the realization of what Little Love was up against. She truly had thought her life was threatened, that she was in danger, we were both in danger. Her reactions to the whip, not used on her, but another horse in her presence, were so acute, so raw, so REAL, that it brought to mind a war veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Did I say Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Wednesday night I sat down at my computer and did some research. Bingo.

This is what Wikipedia says about PTSD: "Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to any event which results in psychological trauma. This event may involve the threat of death to oneself or to someone else, or to one's own or someone else's physical, sexual, or psychological integrity, overwhelming the individual's psychological defenses."

Forty years of studies have concluded that all mammals can suffer from PTSD. “Lack of predictability and controllability are the central issues for the development and maintenance of PTSD.” (Bessel A. van der Kolk) Horses as we know have little or no control over their environment, which makes them prime candidates for developing stress disorders. Also their training may involve elements of unpredictability.

Of course not everyone who experiences trauma will get PTSD, but the earlier on the trauma occurs, the more likely you are to be affected by it. Interestingly studies done on for example Vietnam veterans also show that soldiers who had a traumatic childhood were more susceptible to developing PTSD than those soldiers who had stable childhoods. This can also be applied to horses since “many young horses experience severe emotional trauma, often at a very early age, as a result of early forced weaning and physical separation from their dam. Such early trauma has been shown to increase individual’s susceptibility to developing PTSD.” (as quoted on

I was stunned by my findings, my thoughts. How many horses that were labeled crazy perhaps had PTSD? I thought of the horses I had known in my life, the ones who had been absolutely horrified of tractors, whips, the shoer, the vet, the saddle, the bridle… Apparently an individual could develop PTSD even when they had not been a victim of abuse, but merely witnessed abuse. Even the smallest trigger could bring back powerful emotions, sometimes even stronger than what the individual felt during the original incident. Now I could see why one crack of the whip could send a horse off the deep end, it wasn’t the sound itself, but the memories the sound produced.

There was once a time, years ago, when I thought that perhaps I could change Little Love. Perhaps if I showed her that humans, or at least one human, could be kind, understanding and patient, she would turn around and respond. She would feel safer, calmer, more trusting. And in many ways I have succeeded; I have had moments of amazing connection, moments of such intense love and togetherness. But at the end of the day, we have only taken baby steps; little, tiny steps towards sanity, equilibrium, peace.

When I learn more about PTSD, when I put two and two together, I realize that perhaps it’s time to let go of my dream of Little Love finding complete peace in this world. She is not my horse and I have almost as little control as she has over her environment, her life. This beautiful black friend of mine will possibly never recover from what people have done to her, no matter how much I love her, no matter how much I try. Her memories will always follow her and when triggered properly, haunt her into insanity.

There are moments when I wish Little Love could be a different horse, one that is not so sensitive, expressive and in lack of a better word - damaged. But then I realize that if she wasn’t all those things, I perhaps would not be writing this blog, for it is mostly because of her that I have discovered a whole new world within the world of horses.

Sometimes it is the most difficult and disturbing moments that have the potential to teach us the most. In her distress and pain, Little Love pushed me to look for answers. I have learned to not only embrace those difficult moments, but to treat them as opportunities. Little Love is what she is, and although our time together is sometimes heightened by stressful emotions, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The next time I went to the stables, Little Love and I connected again strongly, the way only she and I can connect. I had a powerful feeling that this connection was strengthened by our experience on Wednesday.  I vowed to protect her from such situations in the future and she put her head in my lap and sighed.  My greatest wish to help Little Love find absolute peace may never come true, but simply by being there for my horse friend, for doing my best to understand her, I may have made her wish come true.  We may not be an airtight team, but we are a team and together we manifest for a better life for the horse that got whipped forty-one times in one round.


Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. ~Garrison Keillor

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Don't try this at home

In October last year the dressage world was shocked by images of an international rider warming up his horse at a FEI World Cup competition. The horses head was rolled down to its chest, its mouth was open trying to avoid the force of the double bridle and its tongue was hanging out. And the tongue was blue. If Rollkur had been a controversy subject before, this footage (aptly named Blue Tongue Video) and the effective use of the internet soon brought Rollkur into everyone’s living room. An international movement against such horse abuse gathered enormous momentum which resulted in the FEI having to finally address the issue of Rollkur. Here is the essential part of the press release that was circulated after their meeting this past week.


Following constructive debate at the FEI round-table conference at the IOC Headquarters in Lausanne today (9 February), the consensus of the group was that any head and neck position achieved through aggressive force is not acceptable. The group redefined hyperflexion/Rollkur as flexion of the horse’s neck achieved through aggressive force, which is therefore unacceptable. The technique known as Low, Deep and Round (LDR), which achieves flexion without undue force, is acceptable.

The group unanimously agreed that any form of aggressive riding must be sanctioned. The FEI will establish a working group, headed by Dressage Committee Chair Frank Kemperman, to expand the current guidelines for stewards to facilitate the implementation of this policy. The group agreed that no changes are required to the current FEI Rules.

The FEI Management is currently studying a range of additional measures, including the use of closed circuit television for warm-up arenas at selected shows.

The group also emphasised that the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider.

The FEI President HRH Princess Haya accepted a petition of 41,000 signatories against Rollkur presented by Dr Gerd Heuschman.

The title of the press release certainly promises closure to this embarrassing chapter. Rollkur is now banned – isn’t this what all of us 41,000 people who signed the petition wanted? But did we really get what we were looking for?

I’m glad to read that the group unanimously agreed that any form of aggressive riding must be sanctioned. Of course, I thought that was a given, but apparently it took an international uproar to make the FEI clarify this point. I do, however, think that it is vital to define words such as aggressive and force, as they are subject to interpretation. As usual, I consulted my Webster and my Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English for clear definitions.


1. Behaving in an angry, threatening way, as if you want to fight or attack someone.
2. Someone who is aggressive is very determined to succeed or get what they want.


1. Strength, energy, power
2. The intensity of power
3. Physical power or strength exerted against a person or thing/the use of physical power to overcome or restrain a person

I’m sure everyone who reads these definitions has a somewhat clear picture in their own mind what these words mean and how they apply to riding horses. Unfortunately those definitions are individual, not universally agreed upon. Consensus may be easy and obvious in a situation when someone repeatedly whips their horse in warm up, but what about when the aggression and force used are more subtle? It’s hard for me to imagine anyone achieving a low, deep and round outline without any force, but an FEI Steward watching the world’s top riders warming up before the World Equestrian Games finals will have to be absolutely sure of himself and of what he defines as abuse before he opens his mouth in front of the international crowd to disqualify a rider.

Because let’s face it, who is going to make the distinction between Rollkur and LDR? And what IS the difference? Frankly, it simply looks like the FEI is unwilling to ban a training method widely used by their top riders, so they decided to change the name of it and make it legal. So what used to be called Rollkur is now called Low, Deep and Round (LDR). Only when it looks ugly enough to cause people to sign a petition, is it called Rollkur.

How convenient.

The FEI rules, however, weren’t changed. Which seems strange, as the rules state that the horse’s head " ... should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical ... " This is somewhat confusing, since it is a long way from the front of the vertical to between the knees where the LDR happens.

I’m not a vet, but even just common sense tells me that when a horse is rolled low, deep and round, it will be very difficult for the horse to breathe as the position puts the airways under considerable strain. I've certainly read enough articles and statements made by vets which support this view.  Not to mention what such a position of forced submission does to the animal emotionally. This is definitely not a position any horse would chose when moving in freedom.

Sure, the FEI can argue that in the “qualified” hands of the professional top riders the LDR method is not forceful and when used just short periods of time it doesn’t cause significant harm to the horse. However, by making this method acceptable, the FEI is sending a message that the method is safe and harmless to the horse. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of dressage riders all over the world, regardless of skill level, are going to see their idols using this method and will try to use it themselves. So, by allowing such riding to enter the international warm up arenas, the FEI is endorsing a method that is potentially very harmful to horses. Or is this one of those things you shouldn’t try at home?

I’m clearly not on the side of modern dressage and simply because I no longer believe the methods to be ethical. I’m not saying they were necessarily ethical before, I was just not as aware of what was happening, as I am now. And once your eyes have been opened, becoming unaware is no longer an option. I know there are others, just like me, who are starting to question the integrity of the competitive equestrian world. And we should continue to question it.

I think that the issue on Rollkur is just the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of something much more vast and profound. There is a growing movement, a movement based on humanity and kindness, a movement that is on the horse’s side. It may not be a large movement as of date, but it is getting bigger as we speak; people are finding each other and organizing themselves.

So, if you agree with even half of what I have said, you are not alone. We need to not only listen to our horses, but continue to speak up for them as well, so that the people who can’t hear them will one day come to their senses. It is so easy to treat horses badly, but like Carolyn Resnick said in an interview for the movie the Path of the Horse: “We must ask ourselves: Even if we can, should we?”


How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. ~Anne Frank

To learn more about the effects of Rollkur  go to
or  click on Articles and read "Why is 'Rollkur' wrong?"