That (first) time with me and Danish NF President Ulf Helgstrand on the radio
Photo: Archive photo of a jumping horse
2022 has been a memorable year for me for multiple reasons. Apart from my book being published, the World Equestrian Games jumping, dressage, para-dressage and vaulting were held in Herning here in Denmark, and this gave me a chance to pitch some horse welfare stories to news media journalists who are normally not terribly interested in this topic. As some of you know, I am trying to put pressure on legislators here in Denmark to write some proper laws for the protection of horses used in sport. Mainstream media stories about the unwholesome dealings of the equestrian industry are important to make it clear to voters and politicians that equestrian sport can not be left to govern itself. So I had a busy summer.
The Danish tabloid BT ran a series of articles about the illegal pharmacy which, according to the official FEI Veterinary and Farrier Services Guide, would be selling steroids and critical broad spectrum antibiotics out of the official WEG clinic in Herning. And I got to debate Danish Equestrian Federation president Ulf Helgstrand on live radio. Twice. Below is a translated transcript of the first program. I know I promised it ages ago but I have not had time to finish the translation until now.
The program begins with an introduction - Denmark hosting the WEG, gold medals etc. But not everyone agrees that it's responsible etc.
Julie Taylor, you don’t believe it is possible to hold these world championships and Olympic games in a decent way. Why not?
Equestrian sport has many problems, and we don’t have time to talk of all of them. But I was intending to focus on three general problems and one of those is that the equipment and the methods used to control horses cause harm to them. That may sound exaggerated or like it’s just an opinion but by now there is quite a lot of evidence that they do. For instance, the bits put into the horse’s mouth to steer them…
Like what the rest of us would call a [different, somewhat old fashioned, Danish word for bit]
Yes, we can call it that, and the horse has one or more [bits] inside the mouth and if the rider pulls on them, it takes almost nothing before it starts to cause pain. Often, bruising, tears and ulcers occur in the horse’s mouth following this. I know that at the Danish Championships event this year, the Danish Equestrian Federation was forced to send home some riders; tell them, you can’t participate here because your horses have injuries in the mouth. And that was even after the riders had been told there would be checks.
There is another thing I think we should mention here which can be a problem. And that is if you need to send your horse to Australia or if you come from South Africa to take part in a show up here. And that’s the transport itself.
Yes, there won’t be any horses coming from South Africa to participate here because if you have to get a horse from South Africa to Denmark, it requires a quarantine period of…
(jokingly) …seven years or something
Julie Taylor: Yeah, something pretty crazy in Mauritius
Host 1: You know what I mean Julie Taylor:
Yes, but horses do come from far and wide and every time you transport a horse like that over one thousand kilometers, you run about a 10% risk that the horse will suffer from a respiratory infection. And this happens because when horses travel, their heads are tied up for safety reasons. And the problem with that is that when a horse would like to clear out their airways, they have to lower the head to snort out any dirt and muck that may have travelled up the nostrils. Horses can’t do this when they are being transported. And this leads to dust and hay particles and muck and exhaust fumes building up and an otherwise normal bacteria in the horse’s respiratory system runs amok and the horse arrives with a fever and a high bacteria count and needs some antibiotics.
Host 1: So a kind of nose and throat infection, which they get from standing there and not being able to swallow or breathe as you explained?
Julie Taylor: Yeah, pneumonia actually.
Host 1: Shit!
Let’s just hear the President of the Danish Equestrian Federation who is with us as well. Ulf Helgstrand, welcome.
Ulf Helgstrand: Thank you
We hear Julie Taylor saying that it’s not possible to hold these international horse shows in a decent way. Do you believe it is possible to hold world championships and Olympic games in a responsible manner?
That is very possible and that is also why we have done so. We bid for it and we got it. But there are lots of factors to keep in mind. Julie mentions that they have to arrive and they have to be transported and they can’t cough. They can easily cough. Something entirely different… just a detail.. is that when an aeroplane arrives at Copenhagen, it gets a slot time for when to land. And so do those horses when they come to Herning. They get a slot time so they don’t have to stand and wait on a truck when they arrive. And there are lots of other things which make it fully responsible. There is fitness for them and they can get a bath or go in a solarium and they get trained and they can even [ambiguous Danish term which literally translates into “walk on grass” but normally means “be turned out”], which is quite rare and quite unique at such an event. And then we are of course enormously attentive to their health status all the way. They can’t enter the stables before they have been through a veterinary control and are fit for fight.
Host 1: What about the bit injuries and mouth injuries?
Ulf Helgstrand: But bit injuries are something we also check for. And then they don’t get to start. This is self-evident. You mustn’t think people have horses worth millions and then try to do something that isn’t horse welfare, only for performance. Because if you do that, the horse will not continue to perform. They must be a happy athlete like everyone else.
Okay. Someone who knows a lot about horse welfare is Janne Winther Christensen, lecturer at the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, section for behaviour, stress and animal welfare, Aarhus University. Welcome.
Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
Host 2: Janne, is there enough focus on the wellbeing of the horses when these international horse shows are held?
Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
Well, I always think we can do better. That applies to all matters regarding animal welfare. And of course, it’s about optimizing conditions as much as possible for the horses. And it’s clear that such transport as has been talked about is taxing for a horse. Being transported over a long distance and coming to a new environment and taking part in competitions. It is of course a burden.
So according to you, what Julie Taylor says about shipping fever being a problem, is a problem. What about for instance the bitting injuries and injuries from other tools?
Dr Janne Winther Christensen: Those are also some challenges that can occur, both with mouth sores and tight nosebands, where the Danish Equestrian Federation by the way is a trail blazer and has made some rules regarding nosebands. And that will of course be some areas for optimization. Something that’s important is also the conditions horses are offered outside these periods of strain. Because it is clear that a horse who has good conditions at home and most of the time is better equipped to withstand a period of strain which a world championship will be. So, paying attention to the horse’s need in the other part of their life, in their home environment, is something quite relevant for how hard on the horse it will be to participate in such a big show.
Host 1: But there is something paradoxical about it, a swimmer or a cycle rider competing in the Tour de France have chosen it themselves, but a horse hasn’t chosen to perform under these conditions.
Dr Janne Winther Christsensen:
No, they have not and that means of course that we have an ethical obligation to ensure the best possible conditions for the horses. Because this is exactly the difference, that the human athletes have usually chosen it for themselves, and the horses haven’t. So, for that reason we of course have an extra responsibility.
Host 2: You say it’s important to ensure the conditions at these international competitions. How is that best done?
Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
There are a lot of different conditions. Ulf mentioned that the horses have a possibility to [walk on grass/be turned out] – that is something which is very important for horses as well. Of course, a lot is done in connection with transport and as we learn more about what factors affect horses during transport – Julie mentioned respiratory issues which can be a big problem for horses who are transported – as we gain better insights into more and more conditions which affect the horses, it will be better possible to take them into account. And then something like the horses being allowed to move freely. Of course, there will always be limitations at such a big event. But in any case, something like the horses periodically having the ability to move freely and go out [on grass/in a pasture] and if possible have social contact with some familiar horses. There’s no guarantee that’s possible at a big competition. But something like social contact with other horses and free movement in the pasture. Lots of roughage and fresh air. Those are some of the things we know from scientific research are really important for horses.
Host 1: Hm. So Julie Taylor, it does sound as if it is possible to stage these events in a responsible way.
Julie Taylor: It might seem like that. But I’d like to pick up on what Janne said about how it’s important that the horse thrives for the rest of the time. Because a lot of these competition horses are actually on the road all the time. There is no “the rest of the time”. I sat down on a rainy day when I was really bored and searched the FEI database to track a particular Danish horse and how far this horse had travelled. I looked where they had started and added up the distances. This horse had been on the road all year and travelled 35,000 kilometers. (This is actually a mistake - I just recounted the horse I had in mind and that horse travelled just over 25,000 km. However, it's quite easy to find FEI jumping horses in excess of 35,000 km. My record is 42,260. Try and beat it) And this wasn’t 2018 where there was a world championship in the USA, and it wasn’t last year when there were Olympic Games in Tokyo. It was just a horse who had been travelling around on a truck or stood on an aeroplane all year.
With some rest days but most of the time or how?
But rest days are held in a show stable and as Ulf just said, horses typically cannot be turned out when they’re in a show stable. So, I really just think that the elephant in the room is that equestrian sport as it looks at the highest world championships and Olympic level is not sustainable. It will have to be scaled down. And the International Equestrian Federation knows this, but they don’t really want to talk about it.
Host 1: And Ulf Helgstrand, from the Danish Equestrian Federation, what is done by the industry to protect horses as much as possible during these international equestrian competitions?
Ulf Helgstrand: We do it all because we are not so crazy that we want to shut down our own sport because that would be the case the moment it was not responsible the way we handle it. And this is very, very much about emotions and not so much in many areas anyway about evidence-based knowledge. That’s why [the debate] becomes polarized instead of sitting down and discussing these things together and find a consensus. Many years ago, we created something called Horse Welfare Forum where all stake holders; animal protection societies, veterinarians and anyone who might be interested in this matter. And we agreed that the horse may be used. We just have to make sure they are used in the right way and on the horse’s terms. And we are incredibly attentive to that.
Let’s take something concrete. Janne Winther Christensen said it’s important they are allowed to move freely – even during competitions – and it’s important that there is some social contact with other horses. Is that the case during a world championship like the one that has just been held?
Ulf Helgstrand: Firstly, when you enter a stable with us or at this world championship, the horses in the stable have social contact because they know each other. Because the various nations are stabled together. The teams we have selected have all been together – so the horses have also been together – at training camps and such leading up to this. So, there they do have social contact. But you also have to remember that if you were to let these horses loose, then pasture injuries are some of the very, very, very, very most dangerous and important that even exists. They would get wounds and injuries and leg injuries from being turned out together if they don’t know each other.
Host 1: Hm. And a horse who travels 35,000 kilometers in a year, does that horse have a good life?
Ulf Helgstrand: I definitely think so. Otherwise, they wouldn’t perform. It’s not as if they’re never at home. Because you have to remember than when you ship a horse, they’re not shipped like pigs for slaughter but like counts and barons. There are resting times and a journey plan which must be approved by veterinarians and all sorts of other things. When you travel with the horses. But it is true that there are many horses who travel very much. But most top riders by far who come to such a world championship have lots of horses to choose from, and the ones who have just competed in the world championship, I will dare to say they will get six or seven weeks of rest after this.
Host 2: Have I understood you correctly, Ulf, that in fact you believe that the conditions at events like the world championship are entirely fine?
Ulf Helgstrand: As has been said, everything can get better. But I am fully confident that what we have organized here is fully defensible. But we can still discuss how to make it even better.
Host 2: Where will you act first?
We can talk about the bit and the noseband and maybe revise it if that’s what we should do and then make it a little more free choice whether to ride with a double bridle or whatever it should be. I am fully open to that discussion but it has to be on a properly founded basis and not just emotions about this. Then we’ll be open to almost anything. But we agree that we are allowed to sit on them
Host 1: And Julie Taylor, where do you think it is best to start? Julie Taylor: I don’t believe it is about emotions if I may just say that. There is an awful lot of evidence. There is an awful lot of scientific research. If anyone deserves the title Godfather of animal welfare science, it’s David Mellor in New Zealand, and he has written a review called Mouth pain in horses which I think people should read and where all this is written. And these horses are in pain almost all the time.
So that’s the place to begin?
Well, the equestrian federations can’t solve this themselves. It will take some legislation. So, I can’t point to one place to start.
Host 1: Ok. Janne Winther Christensen, lecturer in domestic animal science, where do you think it best to start?
Dr Janne Winther Christensen: In connection to competitions, I think it’s important to focus on improving the ability of judges to recognize conflict behaviour in horses. Because the horses do display behavioural signs that they are in discomfort. This could be something like an open mouth for instance, and if judges became better at recognizing that type of conflict behaviour and reduced their scores every time a horse showed this type of behaviour, it would be greatly significant for how horses are ridden.
Host 1: Is it your opinion that there is evidence, that is scientific research which points to these things or is it an emotional discussion as Ulf Helgstrand says?
Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
There is a lot of documentation. There is. And I’d just like to counter what was said about horses in turnout. I completely agree that at a big competition it can be challenging to turn a horse out to move freely. But my colleague in Germany has just found that the more time horses spend in pasture, the fewer injuries they get. With horses who are turned out very little, we see that they are injured in the pasture. But horses who are turned out a lot don’t get pasture injuries.
So where do you think we should begin?
Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
In relation to shows or horses in general?
Host 1: To these big events
Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
In relation to the big events, in part there could be something – as Julie mentions - to do with staging them. I know that in Australia during the pandemic, they tried holding online competitions so horses didn’t need to be transported over such great distances, and I don’t know if that would be practical but it’s certainly something that could be investigated so horses don’t have to be transported as often as it seems they are. This isn’t something I have followed very closely - how much they travel but perhaps it would be an option to reduce some of the kilometers they travel by staging fewer events and having some be online, perhaps, if that has worked in Australia.
Another option is increased focus on conflict behaviour and also rewarding signs of positive welfare in horses.
Host 1: When it can be seen that the horse is feeling well? Dr Janne Winther Christensen:
Host 1: Julie Taylor, how would you like equestrian events to be held in ten years? Julie Taylor: I would like for the Danish Food Agency to start showing some interest in what kinds of drugs these horses are on and whether they have had the sensory nerves cut in their legs so they cannot feel their chronic injuries. Because this is something which is going on now and it’s the equestrian sport itself which is allowed to regulate it. So, I hope in ten years, if there are still equestrian events at this scale, that there are some authorities who show a little bit of interest in what is going on.
Host 1: And Ulf Helgstrand, how do you think it should happen in ten years?
Ulf Helgstrand: There are a lot of things. If, as suggested, we stage online events, we must pay attention to the fact that when we have equestrian events, the warmup is just as important to horse welfare as the competition itself. That’s only ten minutes and if nobody observes how the horses are warmed up and prepared for this show they are going to compete in online, I think it’s going to be an even greater threat at the warmup than during the competition itself, which is just a few minutes.
Host 1: So the online idea is not something you approve of. But how then do you think these events should happen in 10 years?
Ulf Helgstrand: They are going to happen in the way where we are very aware of all these things. And in relation to de-nerving and such, it’s banned. And we have also heard of de-nerving, and it is the ultimate analgesic and it’s banned in Denmark and I suppose it’s also banned by the FEI. It has been difficult to see through. And criminal behaviour is something entirely different from that which we enforce.
-end of radio debate
So how did I think that went?
Okay but not great. After this program, I was quite annoyed that it had turned into yet another season of the longest running show; "the judges have to change and horses have to be turned out when they're at home." I was there to point out that it is impossible to provide horses with adequate social contact and free movement when using them for international elite equestrian sport (which is a major point in my book as well) - and also that judges will never change, so discussing whether they should or not is pointless.
However, another radio journalist (this time a sports journalist) had heard the program and wanted to know more about de-nerving in top horse sport. So the week after, I had the chance to go another round with Ulf Helgstrand. I haven't translated that one yet, but I promise I will. Watch this space.
Julie Taylor is a Danish journalist and activist and the author of 'I Can't Watch Anymore' - The Case for Dropping Equestrian from the Olympic Games.