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  • Writer's pictureJulie Taylor

Let's see you do better

Whenever horse welfare is called into question, those who do the asking are met with the counter claim: ”Have you ever ridden a Grand Prix horse?” ”How many Olympic jumpers have you brought on?” ”Let's see you do better.”

What does this mean, better? Better for the rider? Better for the FEI? Better for the judges? Spectators? Sponsors? Or better for the horse? Surely, by now everybody has discovered that they are not all one and the same.

 The ”FEI code of conduct for the welfare of the horse” states that:

 ”At all times the welfare of the Horse must be paramount and must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.”

We think this is a very good explanation for what ”better” means. Above all else – according to the FEI rules and surely, according to the thinking of any reasonable individual, ”better” means ”kinder.” Less invasive. Less stressful. Less painful. More voluntary. More free. More relaxed. More humane.

This inevitably means that the owner of a healthy, well cared for horse standing in a field eating grass, doing nothing other than fill his belly and hang out with his mates is actually already doing ”better” than the owner of a tense, teeth grinding animal having his tongue and spine compressed in the name of sport.

All power to those who may be able to take the horse all the way from his field to the Olympics without compromising his welfare. But if you can't – if you have to use force and pain, then you are not doing better – you are doing worse – than those who accept their limitations and adjust their ambitions accordingly. It doesn't matter how many medals you win. You have no right to ask anyone else to ”show you that they can do better.”

Good horsemanship is first and foremost about doing no harm. It says so right there in the FEI Code of Conduct.

”At all times the welfare of the Horse must be paramount and must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.”

So if your horse reacts to the competition atmosphere by becoming tense, you sympathetically ride your way out of it or you don't ride at all. Your horse's fear or reluctance is not a blank cheque for you to cause him as much additional pain as it will take to win you a prize. If your horse won't jump then you were either unlucky or not sufficiently skilled. Your personal failure does not entitle you to beat an animal – not even a horse – with a stick. Sorry, what? You want to see us do better? Look no further than to the top of this page.

Should we ride horses at all? Yes, why not, as long as they don't mind. How do we know if they mind? That's difficult because we can't ask them. But we can listen. We can refrain from muffling their protests and we can do our best to check our own egos. We can take a good, long, honest look at our own abilities and ask: ”Should I really be trying for this lateral movement or should I aks my trainer to put me back on the lunge?” ”Should I enter this showjumping class which means I need a stronger bit or should I stay at home and perfect my riding in a snaffle?” ”Should I load my horse today at any cost or should I cancel my engagement away from home and set aside more time for stress free training?” ”Should I fight with my horse today in order to avoid losing face in front of all these people? Or should I step down and wear my crown of thorns before the self appointed experts?”

Perhaps it's time to adjust our expectations of horses and the things they can comfortably do for our egos. Perhaps it's time we made things a little easier on them and harder on ourselves.

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