Updated: Feb 22, 2018
Do you remember the movie Annie? Do you remember the scene where Annie recues Sandy the dog from street kids who have tied empty tins to his tail and are chasing the frightened dog through the streets? Think back to when you watched that scene for the first time. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that the kids chasing Sandy and getting in his face and laughing at his fear and anguish were the bad guys? Did you ever question whether Annie was right to punch one of them right in the face and another one in the gut? Did your heart soar when the mean kids were chased off by Annie, before she freed Sandy of the scary monster tied to his tail?
What if I told you you were completely wrong about that scene? That all dogs eventually have to get used to various noises and the feeling of being chased, so in fact, the boys were helping Sandy by showing him how to cope under pressure. You'd probably object: ”but there are other ways of introducing noise and trailing objects to an animal” you'd say, shaking your head at my ignorant callousness. ”It can be done gradually by a familiar person in a safe space and with the option to end the session at the first sign that the animal experiences actual fear” you might say. ”It doesn't have to happen like that.”
You'd probably have lots of suggestions for better ways to introduce a dog like Sandy to noise and trailing objects than simply tying old tins to his tail and laughing at him as he tried to run away, mocking him as he experienced for real that familiar nightmare: being chased by something that would not stop, would not lag behind, would not go away. Something scary and unfamiliar. Realising little by little that there was no escape.
You'd plead with me on Sandy's behalf because deep down, you know what it's like to be terrified. Your worst nightmares are not about falling over and breaking your nose or being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome. Your nightmares are about being trapped, chased, exposed. Your nightmares are about inescapable fear, and for this reason, you sympathise with Annie in her defense of Sandy the dog.
”The single worst thing you can do to an animal is make it feel afraid.” Dr. Temple Grandin said that in her book, Animals in Translation. I don't agree with everything in that book, but I do agree with this and I think it is a very important message. Pain is bad, but while it is actually possible for people as well as non-human animals to experience joy and happiness in spite of pain, fear destroys everything. To deliberately induce fear is as much an act of cruelty as inducing pain.
This is why I had to fly to England last week to attend the first ever colt starting competition on UK soil. I had to see how the organisers were going to keep their promise of having six naive horses backed in two and a half hours per horse in front of an audience.... without making those horses suffer. I had to see how the trainers were going to deal with loading issues within a set time limit without overfacing the horses. I had to see exactly what it meant when the event promised on its website that the welfare and wellbeing of the horse would be paramount at all times. Was Horseman's Calling really going to be ”for the good of the horse” as promised by the event slogan? Were the demo horses really going to be better off after this event than they would have been after learning the same things gradually and slowly at home in a familiar setting, surrounded by people and horses they knew?
If you go to the Facebook page of the event, you'll see that lots of spectators and even demo horse owners had a great time. You'll see that presenter Richard Maxwell thought the whole thing went down well and ”none of the horses were pushed into a situation that made uncomfortable viewing.”
I beg to differ. To me, the horses looked afraid the entire time they were on display. Sometimes they stood still and looked calm to anyone who wanted them to be calm. But if you are even a little bit interested in animal behaviour, you'll know that still is not the same as calm. You'll know that even if Annie had not stepped in to defend Sandy the dog, he would have eventually had to stop running and resign to the fact that there were tins tied to his tail. Horse people often take such resignation for relaxation.
During such moments of stillness, the trainers took the opportunity to stroke the horses' foreheads, run fingers through manes and stand around looking patient. I won't be showing you much video of this posing, because you'll see plenty of it in other horse media. You'll see horses standing around as if asleep and men in hats with mild and benevolent looks on their faces. What I am going to show you is the kind of stuff that happened to the horses for the rest of the time. I'll show you because I'm not sure anyone else will and I think you need to see this in order to make an informed decision about whether you should ever buy a ticket to an event like Horseman's Calling.
If you went to the event, you might watch these videos and say: ”it wasn't anything like that and I was there”. Well, it was like that because otherwise, I would not have it on video. The fact that you didn't notice what the horses really had to go through so that you and other spectators could be entertained, does not mean it didn't happen. It just means you were fooled – as if by a skilled magician – into thinking that everything was okay for the horses, because everything was okay for you. My fellow spectators were impressed with how "calm and patient" the trainers were. All I could see was the effect they were having on the horses. Acts of cruelty can be committed in cold blod or even with the best intentions. But they are still acts of cruelty.
The two presenters, Richard Maxwell and Jenny Rudall, did everything they could to trivialise any signs of anguish displayed by the horses. Aside from ”horse friendly”, the event had been billed as ”educational”, which it certainly was not. Quite on the contrary. With Rudall cast mainly as the goofy sidekick, most of the misinformation about equine behaviour came from Maxwell. For instance, he happily explained to the audience that giving a horse a 15 minute break is as good as waiting until the next day. Even if we ignore the fact that the horse's body obviously can't restitute and repair itself in 15 minutes, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that ”horses have no concept of time” as Maxwell claimed.
When the 3-year-old mare, Angel, who was being backed by Guy Robertson, displayed classic signs of pain, Maxwell said this was merely a ”dexterity issue”. The mare would not put one hind leg under her body and bunny hopped sideways when compelled to do so. She also pinned her ears and lashed her tail and threatened to kick and buck when asked to go forwards. This was readily put down to the mare's ”attitude” with no mention of the fact that an entire panel of the finest veterinary diagnosticians in the world could not have drawn such a conclusion based on observation alone.
We can't know if Angel was in pain. But considering how this was an ”educational” event and ”for the good of the horse”, it sure was strange to see a clearly very unhappy horse being worked in quite an aggressive manner with no mention at all of how it might have been prudent to put the horse through a clinical exam before proceeding. The token vet present did not have anything to say about Angel's behaviour. Hopefully, this did not teach hundreds of spectators that it's okay to ride a horse who is showing symptoms of discomfort. Hopefully, Jenny Rudall's cheerful observations that ”this mare has her opinions” did not convince everyone present that horses who resist being ridden are simply to be overruled.
This blog post is not a criticism of the abilities of the trainers. It is a criticism of the colt starting competition format, which simply cannot work and therefore should not be attempted. But it was looking through footage of Jason Webb and the three-year-old mare, Snippet, which reminded me of the movie Annie. It was the way he put the skinny, little mare on a rope with another rope behind her hindlegs and draped a piece of tarp over the second rope.
By this time, Webb had already been chasing the mare extensively with various kinds of noisy plastic. As if he were unaware of how simple and quick it is to make a horse comfortable with tarp if you take it easy, Webb seemed to deliberatly terrorize Snippet, running after her with tarp and throwing it over her back – one moment he expected her to run from the tarp as if it were a driving aid and the next moment she was supposed to stand still and let him throw it at her without flinching. It was up to Snippet to guess which reaction was wanted at any given time, and as she looked progressively more afraid, Webb's methods of exposing her to tarp became equally more inventive.
Now, Snippet was not supposed to be backed during Horseman's Calling. She was one of three horses deemed unfit for the purpose, due to being too scrawny and skittish. Instead, these horses would be used as demo horses but not scored by the judges and not backed by the trainers. Before the first session of the first day, everyone was patting themselves on the back for this decision. ”Of course, horse welfare is what it's all about here at Horseman's Calling” Rudall said. On Facebook, Richard Maxwell posted about the decision, using it to position the event as horse friendly: ”There's been a slight change to the mornings program due to some of the young horses put forward not being strong enough to use for backing. Good to see in my opinion.”
Yet, nobody said anything when Jason Webb started jumping on Snippet's back less than an hour into the first session. Rudall made a joke about Webb having a nice bottom. Maxwell said that Webb could do this, having ascertained by use of the tarp how Snippet would react. Nobody stopped Webb from then trying to get his leg over Snippet... except for Snippet, who bucked him off. Everyone laughed at the hilarity of this. Snippet had to buck Webb off one more time before he went back to chasing her with tarp. Maxwell's bewildering strategy to sugar coat the mistake was to say that Webb had been preparing Snippet for the day when someone inadvertently kicks her while mounting. Of course, everyone knows you do this the very first time you get on a horse by deliberately spooking it and getting yourself bucked off. Genius.
When Snippet had bucked off Webb for the second time, Maxwell explained to the audience how this is a necessary part of starting young horses. ”Testing the water” he called it. Take home message: When starting youngsters, always test the waters by getting bucked off at least twice before deciding for the second time that day that the horse is not ready to be backed.
At the end of the second session, Snippet had not learned anything except to buck people off and to face up to Webb at all times or else. She was still afraid of tarp, but gradually finding out that there was no escape. She also had a roller on and she had gained a frightening experience with ropes around her legs. Jason Webb claimed that he had ”shown her how to deal with pressure.” To me, she looked desperate and at times shut down.
So why was Snippet's owner still delighted with the progress? Why couldn't she see that her horse had just been subjected to two hours of what Sandy the dog goes through in the movie before Annie comes to his rescue? Why didn't she jump up Annie style and punch Jason Webb in the face and run off with poor Snippet when he started to chase the mare with tarpaulin?
I'd like to venture a guess: Because she thought she was doing the best thing for her horse by allowing this to happen. Like everyone else watching, she had been told by the organisers that this was a humane and horse friendly way to train. Richard Maxwell was billed as a "horse behaviourist" and is regarded by many lay people as an authority on equine behaviour. He said it was okay. Big name sponsors like Spiller's and Toggi lent credence to the concept. Even Riding for the Disabled was involved. For a regular horse owner who is just starting out on their search for better horse welfare, taking the horses' signs of fear and distress at face value would involve questioning all these authorities who were saying that everything was fine.
And this is the worst thing about this entire, miserable circus. People were there to learn. They were there to find a better way. And what they got was misinformation and a licence to go home and behave like violent psychopaths towards their horses.
There was no pity for the horse at this event. Nothing to learn about real horse behaviour or the true nature of equines. There was no kindness or patience. Just arrogance and a sense of entitlement. "What is good for me is good for my horse." I know horse owners are better than this. I know horse owners want the best for their horses. But the empowerment to stick it to the man in the hat and trust your gut feel is hard to find when everyone keeps telling you that you have to be cruel to be kind.
I work with a lot of problem and young horse trainers and it pains me to think what each of them could have achieved in a total of 120 minutes with these gentle, bright horses. Just imagine Snippet in a safe place, surrounded by safe companions and a good trainer going to see her for 10 minutes a day, 4 times a week for three weeks. She could have learned loads of stuff and all within her comfort zone.
But you can't sell tickets to that. Take it from someone who has spent hours and hours and hours filming proper horse training. It is slow, it is gentle, it is effective. But it is not a spectator sport.