Training

Pain and Gain: AQHA Welfare Concerns

A lawsuit against the American Quarter Horse Association has sparked debate over training methods and judging decisions in the western pleas

Thumbnail for Pain and Gain: AQHA Welfare Concerns

By: Liz Brown |

A Utah horse trainer with a history of launching strange and unsuccessful lawsuits has found an unlikely ally in his latest court battle.

American Quarter Horse Association hall of famer Carol Harris has leant her support to Edward Allan Buck’s preliminary injunction filed against the AQHA on December 27, 2013, in the United States District Court – District of Utah – Central Division.

The motion asks the court to prevent the AQHA from holding a series of under saddle classes until the association proves to the court that their judges are judging the classes according to the AQHA rulebook. One exhibit Buck submitted to the court was a letter from Harris, who outlined her disappointment in the AQHA for failing to take action against horse abuse.

This motion follows Buck’s lawsuit filed against the AQHA last November, in which he alleges he is unable to earn a living as a Quarter Horse trainer because he refuses to “use the abusive techniques required, condoned, and sanctioned by AQHA in the schooling of horses for competition.”

“Trainers/riders who do not use such techniques and actually present horses as prescribed by the descriptions contained in the rules and regulations of AQHA do not win and are not even placed,” Buck noted in the filing.

Harris, who served on the AQHA Animal Welfare Commission as recently as 2012, said her conscience demanded she support Buck. “They’re [the AQHA] letting these trainers just torture horses and they don’t admit it,” she said.

Harris was the owner of the now deceased Rugged Lark, a stallion who won the AQHA Superhorse title in 1985 and 1987 and is also an inductee into the AQHA Horse Hall of Fame – and a Breyer model.

“They’re [the AQHA] a little disgusted with me because they don’t think I should be doing this, but the problem is that we have no more horsemen. They’re all marketers and they’re not interested in the horse anymore,” said Harris. “I’m an elderly person. I’m 90 years old. I’ve got my conscience. If I just sit and do what everybody else is doing, what’s going to happen to the horses?”

Ontario’s Lindsay Grice cautioned that, “We misrepresent the facts when we paint with a wide brush.” She continued, “As a judge and certified coach with several associations and disciplines, I can be somewhat objective as I share my perspective, both inside and outside the show ring.

“To AQHA’s credit, I believe they are more proactive to the issues than other associations, enacting detailed policies to change disturbing trends.

“I really do see lots of horses in the ring beautifully presented and technically correct, but there are always those who will do whatever it takes to get that little bit more – faster, slower, higher, lower. I must confess my disappointment often comes when watching the training rings. I’m expecting AQHA’s fines and stewards program will bring the changes here that have undeniably happened in the show ring.”

In the lawsuit, Buck takes particular aim at the western pleasure classes, criticizing judges for rewarding trainers who show their horses with unnatural headsets and movement. The impetus for the lawsuit comes from Buck’s viewing a video that showed apparent horse abuse in the warm up arena at the Reichert Celebration (an annual event held in the US billed as one of the biggest horse shows in the world) in 2011. In the video, competitors are shown schooling over-flexed horses with two hands on the reins in curb bit and draw rein combinations. The horses, unable to perform free forward movement in such headsets, are seen doing four-beat lopes. In response to public outcry over this video, the AQHA Welfare Commission did create new equipment rules, in November 2012(see www.aqha.com/about/contentpages/about-the-association/advocacy/fines-and-penalties.aspx).

The rule change isn’t enough for Buck, though, who said it only came about because of public pressure. “They’ve done nothing about the gaits of the horse or the head and neck (carriage),” he said, referring to the too-low headset sometimes seen in western pleasure horses (nicknamed the ‘peanut roller’ – because the horse looks like he’s pushing a peanut along the ground with his nose).

AQHA response

In response, the AQHA had no comment beyond this note from director of communications Landi

Campbell: “Generally, AQHA does not comment on pending litigation. However, in the case at hand, AQHA firmly believes the claims made by Mr. Buck are without merit. AQHA has already filed a Motion to Dismiss the claims …Further, should you desire, a cursory investigation of previous claims made over the years by Mr. Buck against various other persons and organizations will offer additional insight into why AQHA believes these claims have no merit. AQHA looks forward to the Court considering its Motion to Dismiss.”

In the 30-page Motion to Dismiss, the AQHA’s legal counsel notes that: Analysis of Plaintiff’s claims would force the Court into a position of determining proper horse gait, proper horse frames, proper methods for training horses, and proper tools and equipment for showing horses. … Under these circumstances, the well established doctrine of non-intervention applies.

While it may not be a court’s place to impose regulations on private organizations, AQHA members can demand change, according to officials. “AQHA is a member-driven organization, so if a member sees something they don’t like, they can write a rule change proposal and submit it,” said Haidee Landry, president of the Canada Quarter Horse Association. “I think that’s a pretty good way to deal with how horses are shown and how they should be judged and what equipment should be allowed and not allowed.”

Landry, who doesn’t know Buck personally, calls him a “serial litigant,” adding “I don’t think he’s considered an accomplished horseman in any discipline or breed circle, so I don’t give him any credibility.”

Even Buck’s own camp doubts the lawsuit will be taken seriously. Harris admitted Buck is a “bit of a nut,” but that “he really feels for the horse.” But she added, “The man is still closer to being right than those who deny anything is wrong.”

“There are some who still deny anything is wrong,” said Grice, “but there’s a greater swell of top trainers and breeders currently expressing desire to change some of the persisting training ring trends. For example, I attended a show industry forum hosted by the National Snaffle Bit Association held prior to the 2013 AQHA judge’s conference. There were charts showing declining western pleasure entries in comparison to other western classes, such as the hugely popular trail, western riding and ranch horse pleasure events. We received strong and specific directives to know the new rules and exactly how to enforce the policies on our score cards. And we were given the familiar reminder that change must be begin at the top, with the officials.”

Three decades of complaints

Since the 1980s, people have bemoaned low headsets and the four-beat lope and jog sometimes seen in western pleasure. “It has slightly improved from where it was 25-30 years ago, but I still detest that class,” said Dr. Robert Miller, a retired veterinarian and creator of the imprint system of training foals.

Over the years, Dr. Miller has written about what he calls the “conspiracy” of trainers and judges. “It used to be a good amateur could easily train a horse for western pleasure if a western pleasure horse went as is described. Why have we gone to an extreme? Well, it takes a professional to produce those grotesque gaits, so it’s good for their business,” he said. “It all boils down to money and ego.”

In order to achieve this “grotesque” movement, some trainers have been known to employ abusive practices – from tying a horse’s head high for extended periods of time to tire the neck muscles so they will carry the head low, to letting blood from the horse to ensure he is tired for a class. Dr. Miller added that an extremely low headset can cause soundness problems by throwing too much weight on the forehand.

What the rules say

The AQHA rulebook states the jog is a “smooth, ground-covering two-beat diagonal gait” and the lope is an “easy, rhythmical three-beat gait.” The western pleasure horse should also “carry his head and neck in a relaxed, natural position, with his poll level with or slightly above the level of the withers.”

To the casual observer, the reality is something much different. There’s even scientific evidence to back this up – a 2007 study by Molly Nicodemus Ph.D. published in the Journal of Equine and Comparative Exercise Physiology found in a gait analysis that the western pleasure jog and lope are actually being performed as four-beat stepping gaits.

In an email, Nicodemus noted her graduate student Joanna Booker-Shroyer did another gait analysis study a few years later. “She did see some improvements in the gaits…. She still found some flaws in the gaits in that it still was not quite matching breed standards, but progress seemed to bemade. I have studied similar gait inconsistencies in other breeds showing western pleasure so it is not just AQHA. It is going to take time to retrain judges,” she said.

“Interestingly, it was at the time of this study, that AQHA produced an excellent western pleasure educational video – available to everyone but mandatory viewing for all judges,” noted Grice. “Gait analysis of desirable, undesirable and just plain unacceptable walk, jog, lope and back-up examples were demonstrated by the top players in the western pleasure industry during actual horse shows. Horses were included with heads too low, overly canted (angled), or with sullen expressions, along with excellent examples. I recommend this video to everyone.

Recently, the AQHA has encouraged judges to read a statement of western pleasure guidelines prior to the class. And judges now ask for extension at the jog and can ask for lengthening of stride at the walk and lope.

Landry doubts a four-beat loping horse is ever picked to win a class, but concedes incorrect movement still sometimes pins. “What happens is sometimes you have a bunch of bad horses, all moving trashy and then the judge has to pick somebody out of that group and somehow place that class,” she said.

“I’ve asked a judge if he’ll disqualify horses and he said, ‘Well, how do you disqualify the whole class?’ and I said, ‘Well, I guess you have to if they’re all doing something they’re not supposed to be doing’ and he said, ‘Well, how would I get another job? As soon as I go to a horse show and disqualify every horse in the class, where do I ever work again?’”

“Would you sacrifice your career for that change?” she asked.

But Harris contends this is exactly what needs to happen. “All a judge would have to do is do it once,” she said. While it’s likely that Buck’s lawsuit will go nowhere, it has reopened some discussion over humane treatment of horses.

“There’s so many others who feel the way I do, but they’re a little bit scared that it will make it harder for them to win or to become somebody [in the AQHA],” said Harris. “But what can the AQHA do to me now? If they kick me out of the hall of fame, it’s not going to hurt me. … My horse was in [the hall of fame] because he was not an intimidated horse.”

“I’m ending my career the way I think I should,” she concluded.