If we’ve learned anything from the past couple of weeks’ Sir Mark Todd debacle, it’s that different cultures exist under the umbrella term of ‘horsey people’ and these cultures navigate by profoundly divergent norms when it comes to hitting horses. A couple of questions are repeated over and over in the comment threads: ‘How can the spectators laugh and cheer?’ ‘Why doesn’t the rider do something?’ The answer to those questions is that in that moment, on that day, the behaviour of the trainer, the rider, and everyone else fell within the norms of that particular group.
For lots of people, causing pain to horses is considered normal, as long as it is done for the purpose of making the horse perform some action that is wanted by the human. Since everything was normal, there seemed to be no reason to speak out or act on behalf of the horse. Perhaps someone thought to themselves that the whipping was excessive but saying that aloud would have meant breaking another norm, namely that of never criticising a trainer as prominent and successful as Sir Mark Todd. The rider said herself that her initial concerns about what had happened during her lesson had been brushed off by others at the clinic who assured her that it ‘hadn’t been that bad’. It had been within the norm. Not until she saw the video did she realise that what had happened to her horse was not something she could justify. Finding out that your previous behaviour in accordance with a given norm is actually - for moral reasons - something you never want to do again is how we grow as people.
We learn the norms of our culture from a young age by bumping into them and experiencing the consequences of doing so. A small child points at an unusual looking person in the supermarket queue and learns from their disapproving parent that this behaviour violates a norm. A teenager uses a slur in a context where that is not considered appropriate and learns by seeing themselves through the eyes of others that such language falls outside the norms of that group and is thus considered wrong. If the teenager wants to be part of the group, they must adjust to its norms. For better or worse, this is how our social environments shape our behaviour.
Since our social environments consist of others who also gauge the legitimacy of their behaviour from our reactions, norms are constantly re-produced and re-negotiated in society’s feedback loop whether we know it or not. This can be a painful process. But one thing that makes it much easier is if we can conceptualise the tacit knowledge we all possess of the norms that apply in our culture. In this case, I am talking about equestrian cultures because this was supposed to be a blog post about the Sir Mark Todd scandal and what it’s going to mean for horses and the people who interact with them.
Becoming consciously aware of norms enables us to pick them up and turn them over and have a proper look at them to see if they are actually any good. We aren’t forced to reproduce norms once we’ve internalised them. We can choose to reject them. I grew up hitting ponies with sticks but I don’t do that anymore and I won’t be passing the habit on to my children. The reason for that is that someone made me aware of the norm I was applying (hitting horses with sticks is okay as long as it serves the purpose of making them do something I want them to do), which forced me to defend the norm, which I could not. When that became clear to me, I no longer felt justified in hitting horses with sticks. Doing so now made me feel guilty and ashamed and so I stopped.
People have come to Sir Mark Todd’s defence by pointing out that he was only doing what was necessary. That the horse might have become dangerous if not ‘corrected’. The premise for all these arguments is the norm of making horses jump cross country whether they want to or not. This means that the arguments are only valid to people who have internalised that norm. If, like me, you have previously examined it and arrived at the conclusion that horses have no moral obligation to entertain the whims of humans, the argument that the horse at the receiving end of the beating might otherwise have posed a danger to the rider resembles nonsense. Nobody is forced to ride a horse in an industrialised country. Just don’t. Problem solved. You’re safe. There is no necessity to whip a horse and therefore no justification by any moral standard.
In comment threads everywhere, people are learning this out loud by getting themselves entangled in their own gotcha rhetoric. Here’s a good example from a Facebook poster I’ll call Jenny because it doesn’t really matter who she is. Jenny has posted the long version of the viral Sir Mark Todd video ‘to provide context’ – presumably without knowing that the exact same version had already been posted on YouTube two days before with the rider’s consent: ’I truly believe this proves Sir Mark was not in fact mindlessly and needlessly beating a horse, it proves he was correcting a horse with a long standing problem of thinking it was ok to do something well then say NO.’
Jenny’s justification for whipping the horse is that the horse had a problem, which was that he thought he had the right to say no to humans telling him to do something which – according to Jenny – he was perfectly able to do. The premise for this argument is the norm that humans get to decide what is and isn’t a valid reason for a horse to say no. But that's just an assumption. There’s that whole ‘is he in pain or is he just being naughty?’ debate, but that debate ignores the possibility that the horse simply doesn’t want to and is entirely justified in his refusal.
Jenny goes on to ask another rhetorical question… at least it seems as if it was intended to be rhetorical:
’Isn’t that proper and correct training? Giving a horse chances, letting them get confident but not letting them take the p**s?’
Jenny is referring to the fact that, prior to whipping the horse at the bigger step, Sir Mark Todd had made the rider jump off a smaller one to build up the horse’s confidence. When the difficulty increased and the horse refused, it was interpreted by many of Sir Mark Todd’s defenders as the horse showing willful disobedience. Again, the premise for the argument is an assumption: that humans have the right to punish horses who do not obey them.
Jenny probably doesn’t do everything she’s told by other people to do. If someone stepped up to her and told her to perform a task which she found meaningless and a bit scary, she’d most likely refuse. The exact same thing is happening in the Sir Mark Todd video – except the one refusing is a horse. Whereas forcing Jenny with a stick to perform scary, unnecessary tricks would fall outside the norms of her culture, doing the same thing to a horse falls within the norms of her culture.
Jenny knows all of this, but her knowledge is tacit. She has likely never put any of these norms into words before. Bumping into the norms of equestrian cultures unfamiliar to her, she becomes aware of her own and is suddenly able to examine them:
’Does this mean we have to allow horses to say no? Say if they don’t want to come in from the field, stand for the farrier, not leave the yard or even allow you to ride them?’
To someone like me, this is pure gold. In one post, Jenny has gone from being cocksure of her own superior insight in the matter to asking some huge – at least within an equestrian context – moral questions that will perhaps go on to rock her world, just as they have rocked the worlds of others, including yours truly. As Jenny puts it:
’Again, maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong.’
Jenny is far from alone. All over the horsey internet, people are asking similar questions. One commenter on YouTube put it like this: ’That horse knew what to do but was just "trying it on". Should it be just allowed to refuse?’
Finding any kind of useful answer to that question requires the application of moral philosophy, which creates even more questions. What do we think is right and wrong and why? What is the status of horses and other non-human animals in our culture? What do we want it to be? What would non-human animals want it to be if they could choose? Does that even matter to you?
Or you could skip the ethical slug and jump straight to looking after your own self-interest. That requires you to answer only one question: ‘how to I make sure I can keep using horses for sport and leisure in the future?’ World Horse Welfare (WHW), the FEI, and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) have all done a lot of thinking about this because they stand to lose an ocean of money if riding horses ever gets banned. And guess what their reactions have been to the scandal.
In his public apology ‘to the horse and all involved’, Sir Mark Todd heavily implied that the incident was a one-off.
‘One of the main things I preach is about establishing a mutual respect between horse and rider... I am very disappointed in myself that I did not adhere to that in this case.’
The BHA also issued a statement, including this: ‘His behaviour, for which he has apologised, fell a long way short of the standards of care we expect of licensed individuals and that we know is provided to the overwhelming majority of horses in training in Britain every day.’ WHW, of which Sir Todd has been a patron until now, stated the following: ‘Mark is a consummate horseman, who cares deeply for horses and their welfare but, in this case, either through losing his patience or acting out of frustration, he has badly let himself down.’
What we can take from those statements is that Sir Mark Todd and his friends would like you to believe that he doesn’t usually conduct himself as he did in the video and that such behaviour is uncommon in horse sport. If the general public were to get the impression that horses are beaten all the time to force them to take part in racing and equestrian sport, it might expedite the dreaded and much talked of time when ‘they ban us from riding horses’. That’s why everyone is very careful to make sure they say that this scandal is revolving around a wholly anomalous occurrence. ‘What, beat horses? No, we don’t do that here. That would be those dreadful Modern Pentathlon people you’re referring to.’
Oh, but enter the fans. The ones joining Facebook groups called ‘I Support Sir Mark Todd’ and referring to his self-inflicted, public embarrassment as a ‘witch hunt’. They have not received the memo that they are to pretend at all costs that their sport is based on mutually respectful partnerships between humans and horses. No, no. They post things like this:
Even Sir Mark Todd’s apology is undermined by his fans in their eagerness to stand by him. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
All of these reactions are kind of funny and I won’t pretend I’m not tucking into the popcorn while the FEI’s demographic is enthusiastically digging its grave. What is not funny is the bullying that is going on, directed at the rider. There are all kinds of rumours about her circulating. I have no idea whether any of them are true, and I also don’t really care in relation to the Sir Mark Todd scandal. Whatever that young woman has done right or wrong in her life, sharing this video required an incredible amount of courage. It was brave exactly because she is not without blame in the matter. Yes, she should have stood up for her horse. But so many of us have been in her riding boots while a professional or other role model did things to our horses which we either lacked the authority or the courage to challenge. Shut your eyes and try to recall such a low point in your equestrian past. Imagine the event had been preserved in HD video. Then imagine sharing it with the world. Most would prefer not to. Even if the video had the potential to move an important discussion forward.
Why did the rider wait two years? I don’t know. Why haven’t you posted all your most embarrassing home videos on TikTok yet? Why did she post an ‘edited’ video without context? She didn’t. The long version was taken down from TikTok for violating their community guidelines against violent and graphic content. When I contacted the rider to offer to publish it on YouTube if she didn’t want to do it herself, she agreed. The longer version of the video does not contradict the rider’s story. Nor does the fact that she was there to get help solving her horse’s reticence to drop into water. I’m sorry but I am going to be a little bit flippant now and say: duh! We had all pretty much figured out that this was a horse who did not want to drop into that water. Is there no limit to the amount of pressure a trainer should apply, as long as it will make a horse do what they think the client wants? Surely, Sir Todd - decorated Olympian and seasoned professional that he is - would have the clout to tell a young amateur rider to go home and practice on the flat or whatever he deemed suitable.
Why did the rider laugh and joke about the incident online if it had been so terrible? That one is easy. Because laughing at violence against horses is a tried-and-true collective coping mechanism for dealing with the cognitive dissonance that results from loving horses at the same time as being complicit in their abuse. ‘We’re laughing about it so it can’t be that bad, right?’ Why did she happily pose with Sir Mark Todd and post photos from the clinic? Because that's what you do.
Some people are asking what the difference is between hitting a horse with a branch or a whip. Yeah. Good question. Not a lot of difference, perhaps. If those are similar behaviours, does that legitimise hitting with a branch or does it perhaps undermine the legitimacy of hitting with a whip? Lots to think about. Some people want to know why it should be wrong to hit a horse like Sir Mark Todd did in the video when 'horses do much worse to each other' - those people need to examine the quality of their husbandry and educate themselves on equine behaviour. Horses in the wild spend a tiny, insignificant percentage of their time fighting, so if your Neddies are starting brawls, you're doing something wrong.
It's only February and we've already seen two of the FEI's biggest stars disgraced in 2022. If you're sitting on the footage we'll all be talking about in March and you don't want to publish it yourself, just ask. I'll do it.
Julie Taylor is a journalist and activist for horses and the author of 'I Can't Watch Anymore' - The Case for Dropping Equestrian from the Olympic Games