Next industry trend: Ensuring humane treatment of show horses and improving public perception of equestrian sports

Recently while browsing my Facebook feed, I came across a post from Horse&Rider magazine about the top trends in the past 10 years. And it got me thinking about what changes we are on the verge of now? The major change that seems to be really taking hold, and ruffling some feathers in many parts of the industry, is action on the humane treatment of horses, particularly show and race horses.

Folks who show in AQHA halter are largely unhappy with the new rule banning a lip chain at AQHA events. Starting next year, lip chains will be prohibited for show horses. A lip chain is placed under a horse’s upper lip and across the surface of his upper gum. The chain, which is commonly used with halter horses for more control, hooks to the halter and connects to the handler’s lead shank.

A lip chain is one placed under a horse’s upper lip and across the surface of his upper gum. The chain hooks to the halter and connects to the handler’s lead shank, for control. It is commonly used in halter classes. – See more at: http://horseandrider.com/blog/aqha-bans-lip-chains-showing-28310#sthash.TeRY9aR7.dpufA lip chain is one placed under a horse’s upper lip and across the surface of his upper gum. The chain hooks to the halter and connects to the handler’s lead shank, for control. It is commonly used in halter classes. – See more at: http://horseandrider.com/blog/aqha-bans-lip-chains-showing-28310#sthash.TeRY9aR7.dpuf

A lip chain is placed under a horse’s upper lip
and across the surface of his upper gum.

“While many of our halter exhibitors lobbied in favor of lip chains at the 2015 convention, the Executive Committee members – based on input from the Animal Welfare Commission, the Show Committee and Show Council – believe that the use of lip chains in halter classes is not the intended use for lip chains – especially in the hands of novice exhibitors. It’s simply not humane,” Dr. Blodgett said.

While there is controversy on both sides, with good points about safety and proper training, the point is that big organizations are becoming more sensitive to the welfare of the horses and perhaps even more so the perception of the public. And the ban follows some other crack-downs on equipment, such as the use of whips used for showmanship; war bridles or like devices; or an type wire or rope over a horse’s head. The ban of the lip chain has many people using the old “slippery slope” warning that your class could be next with spurs and the like the next to be banned.

Halter at the AQHA Virginia Classic Horse Show at the Virginia Horse Center.

The Big Lick Tennessee Walking Horses may have been the spark of this new look at humane treatment of show horses. The practice of soring, inflicting intentional pain to a horse’s legs or hooves with chemicals or pads in order to force the horse to perform an artificial, exaggerated gait, has gone as far as to get the attention of politicians and get the show class dropped from major horse shows.

Sen. Mark Warner (D), of Virginia, joined with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R), of New Hampshire to introduce the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act in April. The legislation aims to strengthen the Horse Protection Act (HPA) and prevent the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses, Racking Horses and Spotted Saddle Horses.

The proposed legislation also aims to:

  • Eliminate self-policing by requiring the USDA to assign a licensed inspector if the show’s management indicates its intent to hire one. Licensed or accredited veterinarians, if available, would be given preference for these positions.
  • Increase the penalties on an individual caught soring a horse from a misdemeanor to a felony subject to as much as three years’ incarceration, increases fines from $3,000 to $5,000 per violation. A third violation allows permanent disqualification from participating in horse shows, exhibitions, sales or auctions.

“Whether riding, racing, hunting or training, horses have been a part of Virginia’s culture for 400 years,” Warner said. “However, owners and breeders from across the Commonwealth agree that the deliberate act of inflicting pain on horses has no place in modern equestrian competition. Sen. Ayotte and I are proud to reintroduce the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act to give USDA the tools it needs to crack down on horse soring and end this cruel practice once and for all.”

The North Carolina State Fair has dropped the class from its schedule. In addition, Pepsi dropped its sponsorship of The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in 2012 after an ABC News investigation.

For many people, their exposure to horses is limited to the Kentucky Derby each year. The New York Times in particular has been casting a very critical eye on horse racing and looking into the seedier side of the sport. And really, who didn’t lose some of our enthusiasm for the sport when Barbaro broke his leg in the Preakness Stakes? Some recent critical articles in the media include:

There is no riding discipline that is completely free of these problems and scandals.

A rotational fall is extremely dangerous as the horse
somersaults over the fence that is fixed and immovable.
  • Eventing faces heat over continuing deaths at competitions and over jumps that do not move by rule. In response to a series of fatalities by both riders and horses — and the negative publicity they attracted — Eventing’s governing bodies have focused on reducing the sport’s risk for riders. The FEI now collects data on falls and rider injuries, and encourages protective equipment such as inflatable vests. The sport has started using frangible pins, which are designed to prevent ‘rotational’ falls — where a horse somersaults over a jump. However some jumps, including many solid obstacles favored by eventing traditionalists, cannot be made frangible.
  • Dressage, the height of classical training, isn’t even immune. The practice of “Rollkur,” the exaggerated flexion of a horse’s poll and neck has become a dividing topic. Findings that the training method was harmful to the horses and photos of horses with blue tongues from the pressure exerted by the bit turned public sentiment. Soon photos of top riders and horses could be found all over the Internet, taken by Dressage spectators and media. In 2010, the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) added a section to the Stewards Manual for dressage. The addendum includes illustrations of three “permitted stretches.” Stewards are now instructed to intervene if they see riders performing “deliberate extreme flexions of the neck” for more than “very short periods.”
    Rollkur is the extreme flexion of the poll and neck.
  • In the world of show hunters, again the New York Times ran a piece on the sudden collapse and death of a pony after it was administered drugs at the Devon Horse Show. These show animals are reportedly being given more and more drugs to calm them for the show ring.

It isn’t that big of a leap to see the same scrutiny being placed on other organizations and no horse show is immune. It’s important to remember that in this age everyone has a high-quality video camera in their pocket and can instantly upload a video showing abuse or aggressive training to the Internet right from the warm-up arena rail. And while horsemen may understand the reason for a certain device, such as a lip chain or use of spurs, the general public may not see it as any more than a torture device.

Whenever one part of the industry faces a controversy over inhumane practices, the whole industry suffers. Generally people don’t differentiate between the disciplines. Horses are horses and we all get lumped in together. It seems that more and more equine organizations are making some moves to clean up public perception, and at the same time protect the horses. We will see how their efforts evolve over the next decade.

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