The 2016 Olympic Games Equestrian has been somewhat marred by a series of disqualifications in the show jumping for misuse of whip or spur. Although those were all unacceptable incidents, are the machinations required to get a Dutch dressage horse to the ring and Kiwi eventer to the first jog justified and surely such actions begs mere mortals to ask when does equestrian competition become horse abuse and have we gone too far in search of sporting glory?
Before endurance recently took the title of Most Evil Horse Sport, show jumping was probably carrying the burden of public disapproval. Doping scandals covered Olympic Games and continental championships, and the rascals were hyper-sensitising legs all over the place (whatever that means!) if several disqualifications were to be believed. Hauling their horses around in draw reins, too tight nosebands and vicious bits, the funny thing was, no horses died, none limped in or out of the ring and when McClain Ward’s Sapphire was sensationally disqualified from the World Cup Finals, there was no mark on the horse. She trotted up sound before and after the alleged abuse, tested clean for medication and continued her career for some time afterwards with no apparent ill effects. In fact, those of us that were there couldn’t see a thing wrong with the horse!
The pressure got taken off showjumping when the Most Evil baton passed onto dressage. Rollkur had superseded sensitising legs as the ultimate wickedness and has now been proven scientifically to impair the horse’s breathing because it compresses the wind pipe. So why are we still seeing it? The practitioners need to be instantly, and permanently, eliminated. Oh there are a few disciplinary actions handed out but you only have to look at the FEI disciplinary list to see how few of those measures there are. The evidence of our eyes says the practice is still widespread so how come the disciplinary list is SHORT? And if that was not enough to bring the sport into disrepute, how did a Dutch dressage horse even get to the ring at the Olympics? A 19 year old veteran that had been on a drip for fluids all night. Surely then, the decision must be taken out of the riders hands?
But of course, one can hardly eliminate a dressage horse for being given fluids when at least half a dozen event horses had precisely the same treatment after cross country… Most Evil will soon be passing on to eventing if the participants in that sport are not careful. The Olympics may be a special case perhaps, only once every four years but at a recent American international CCI, in perfect weather on great footing, at least twenty horses could be seen on fluid drips after the 2* cross country. Not because they needed to be, but because it has almost become standard practice. Huh? Not after Badminton or a Olympic Games in blazing heat but a regular 2*. The proponents argue that it is better to prevent than cure and it keeps their horses in better condition. For what? It has been a while since the USA won a World or Olympic title and the Europeans seemed to be able to manage without so many ‘treatments’. Maybe things changed when the rules for qualification got tougher. One leading international rider and trainer once said, when his horse was not quite right on Sunday morning, “that it has probably done a leg (got a tendon injury) so it is going to have six months off, so I might as well jump this show jumping round because if the injury gets worse, the horse is going to be having time off anyway but at least it will be qualified……..” Enough said really. And what about the Olympic eventer that cut its face on an exposed pipe? How on earth did a horse that subsequently required double figure stitches in the wound, even get to the first jog let alone pass it?
It seems to me that it is about time that the people in charge start looking at what happens outside the ring as much as they do in it. Because we, the ever watchful public cannot see in to those sacred spaces much of the time, we are relying on officialdom to keep horse welfare paramount. They need to be able to ask the question when does ‘treatment’ stop and become horse abuse? Is an occasion ever so big it justifies pushing what we can do medically to the limits? Premeditated and discussed in committee with vets, officials owner and riders. Surely this is just as bad, if not worse, than those show jumping riders who were all disqualified for a moments loss of control in the exact same seconds that their Olympic dreams crumbled? And are we, watching at home guilty of damming such riders because we see those few seconds on TV, when others perhaps more guilty , are safe from prying eyes in the stable compound and calling their transgressions “treatments”.