Thrown to the curb
While we wait for the Danish Equestrian Federation's board of appeals to decide what kind of nothing to do about Andreas Helgstrand, let's review some of the questions raised by the last few weeks of international dressage debate.
The first and most pressing question - in fact, this was the first question which occurred to us when we saw the photos - is this: If two Olympic dressage riders - one on top of the horse and one standing right next to him - can go through an entire, supposedly educational schooling session without noticing that the tack is both incorrectly fitted and being incorrectly used, how can a lowly steward ever be expected to do his or her job?
Much fun has been poked at the impracticability of the FEI steward's task. It's just never going to work, is it? Timing LDR application to exactly ten minutes when numerous horses are being schooled at once. Discerning between the prohibited "aggressive force" and the entirely acceptable passive aggressive manipulation. Ensuring that nosebands are not too tight without having any objective measure of what that means. Standing up to competitors who are powerful and feel entitled to do whatever they want.
The stewards are supposed to be protecting multiple horses against pain and fear at once. Andreas Helgstrand and Morten Thomsen (and Danish Equestrian Federation President Ulf Helgstrand who was in the audience) were only obliged to protect a single horse at a time against pain and fear. They had just that one job above all their other jobs: Whatever you do, don't cause this horse any pain. That's what it says in the Code of Conduct. Welfare must be paramount at all times. What is so difficult about that?
What is difficult about it is of course that the equipment we use to control horses is designed for pressure release conditioning. That means that we motivate horses largely through pressure and reinforce behaviour largely through release. Once we're on the path of using pressure, never escalating that pressure into pain is a difficult task which we have to constantly think about in order to manage. What makes it even more difficult is using spurs and lever action bits. Hence the rule of thumb that these tools are "for experts only".
Recent events have raised the question: What does it take to be an expert?
"The bit is no stronger than the hand holding the rein". So they say but you know that is complete rubbish. Riders who can control a 600 kilo warmblood with their bare hands alone are far between. Most need bits. It is the bit which confers real strength to the hand in the first place.
In addition to the advantage gained by the rider who uses any bit, the purpose of a curb is to make it even more powerful, relative to the hand that holds the rein. A curb amplifies whatever pressure is applied by the rider's hand. Agreed? This does not mean a double bridle must necessarily hurt the horse. There are riders out there who can ride with one without causing pain. But if the rider is not skilled enough, the risk of him or her hurting a horse will be increased when a curb is used, compared to riding in a snaffle or even perhaps a halter for the very least able. Everybody knows this. It's not rocket science. It's not even news.
What is news is that the Danish Equestrian Federation has now admitted that it is possible to get to Grand Prix and even Olympic level without having learned how to correctly fit or use a double bridle. This poses the inevitable question: If Denmark's No 1 dressage rider cannot be trusted not to accidentally damage his horse while riding in a double bridle, who can? Has the time come to throw the double bridle to the curb?
According the the Danish Equestrian Federation, as a result of the Akeem Foldager scandal, extra funds have now been allocated to the communications department for "spreading knowledge of correct riding and schooling of horses."
When "spreading knowledge of correct riding and schooling of horses"becomes an extracurricular activity for an equestrian federation, then you know we're all in trouble. Whatever booklet or smart phone app the DEF education department comes up with, we implore them to remember to send it to their President, their most succesful rider and his instructor.
The reason normally given for maintaining the tradition for double bridles in high level dressage has long been that it's supposedly proof of the rider's refined aids. Don't think too long or hard about that because the logic of it is frankly head spinningly demented. But now, the DEF has gone and called its own bluff. The double bridle is not proof of anything. If it were, how could someone without the ability to fit or use one have won medals at international championships?
We were pleased to learn that the Danish animal protection society, Dyrenes Beskyttelse, while it does not see fit to take the matter of Akeem Foldager's blue tongue to the police, has actually issued a press release urging the Danish Equestrian Federation to allow competitors to show their horses all the way up through the levels with no spurs and in a simple snaffle.
The move is purely symbolic and will suffice like an ice cube in a sea of magma, but it's none the less a good idea. We have been asking the FEI for years why they insist on horses being shown in double bridles and for years we have been given the same crappy excuse. Now the Danish Equestrian Federation has gone and shot that big, shiny bubble out of the sky.
Last time we checked, horses were supposed to be able to do everything in a snaffle before being introduced to the double. No? Yes! So why not do entirely away with the double bridle? Why not just make the snaffle the most severe bit allowed in equestrian sport or even anywhere? And open up for bitless competitors while you're at it. We know.. it's not "classical" but what is, nowadays?
The Danish Equestrian Federation won't change its rules. Not unless the FEI does it first. And the FEI won't change until lawmakers are knocking on the door, demanding that it does. If we've learned anything from the last few weeks it's that change will have to come from the outside. It will never come from within equestrian sport. If horses are to be safe, the most potent equipment used to cause them pain and injury must be banned by law. The only other way is for the federations to enforce their own rules, and it seems as if that ship has finally sailed.