Where do we go from here
As always when we break a horse welfare scandal, somebody points out that "this guy is not the only one doing this stuff" - and then they proceed, as if they were the first person ever to have this insight, to lecture us on how it's not fair to make one person the scapegoat for a structural issue.
We actually agree that it's not fair. The hypocrisy of sponsors who are now paddling away from the sinking ship that is Andreas Helgstrand is almost too much to bear. As if they didn't know what they were funding. As if they had no idea. As if they don't have eyes in their heads. Of course they knew. They're just sorry they got caught and unlike Andreas Helgstrand, they have the luxury of being able to distance themselves from Andreas Helgstrand.
It's not fair. It's never fair. It wasn't fair to Patrik Kittel, it wasn't fair to Craig Schmersal, it wasn't fair to Jason Webb. Because they are only doing what everyone else is doing.
Okay - so what does that imply? Does it imply that we should never publish photos of blue tongues or spur marks or scared horses because it might lead to an unfair distribution of blame on the riders? Or does it perhaps imply that there is a really big, ugly elephant in the room which needs to be addressed? If it's really true that "I have seen worse many times" and "oh, that happens to everyone" and "this guy over here is just as bad" - what does that tell you about equestrian sport? And where do we go from here?
What needs to happen is happening. A previously untouchable dressage star is losing his sponsors because he did something really, really ugly to his horse in front of everyone, including someone with a camera who decided to share the photos. The situation has been exacerbated for the rider by very bad crisis management on the part of the Danish Equestrian Federation and the Danish animal protection societies, Hestens Værn and Dyrenes Beskyttelse. These organisations who claim to work for the welfare of the horse have in fact done nothing to resolve the problems. Except talk. They have talked for five years now. Their failure to do what was wanted by a growing number of horse lovers has transformed simmering dissatisfaction and disillusionment into pure rage. And now that rage has all been directed at Andreas Helgsgrand via his sponsors.
It seems bizarre but the sponsors who knowingly funded Andreas Helgstrand's pursuits for years are now leading the way towards better horse welfare. Their cowardice and frantic hand washing aside, sponsors like Equsana, Jan Nygaard BMW, Passier and Linsmark are sending a signal to all the other riders out there: If you get caught hurting your horse, you lose. This is a message which the equestrian federations and the so called animal protection societies have consistently refused to convey. Now the sponsors are doing the dirty work for the federations and animal protection groups. The sponsors, who paid good money in return for what they thought would be positive exposure, are having to clean up the mess left by the federation and riders like Andreas Helgstrand who have been having a big party with no consideration for the horses or the future of the sport. It doesn't bode well for future sponsorships if that's the deal one can expect.
At the centre of all this is Andreas Helgstrand. Unlike a lot of people, we don't feel sorry for him. He has had so many warnings. He has had so many close calls and everytime he has laughed it off, made a big joke about how some people thought he was a cruel rider, never stopping to consider whether perhaps those people had a point. He is a big boy who made his bed and now he has to lie in it. If you feel worse for Andreas than you do for his horses, we can't help you. You'll have to wait until one day you wake up and smell the coffee - boy, are you going to feel like an idiot. We all did. Your day will come as well.
What would be even better than Andreas Helgstrand's sponsors throwing him under the bus as they have done would be if he were to be tried and convicted for animal cruelty. It has long been clear that equestrian sport will not clean up itself. It will never happen. If horses are to be safe, they must be protected from the federations, not by the federations. The animal protection laws of the various countries must do what the federations and animal protection societies are unwilling to do.
The fact that the veterinarian invited by the Danish Equestrian Federation said the skin was normal where the pictures had indicated damage from the spurs does not mean Andreas Helgstrand is home free. There is still the matter of the squashed, blue tongue and the painful mandible almost a week later. Will the animal welfare groups step up to their responsibilities? Will the police?
One veterinarian who is not afraid to speak up is Lene Kattrup who is a member of Denmark's Ethical Council, which advises members of Parliament on bio-ethical issues. According to Kattrup, animal cruelty and neglect cases are notoriously under-prioritized by Danish police.
"In Denmark, it can be difficult to get the Police to take up a report for animal cruelty or neglect. It is necessary to report cases of animal cruelty or neglect in writing and to request a receipt for the report. If you just call the Police on the phone, they may not take the case any further. But legally, they have to. Even if you are a private person, you can report animal cruelty and neglect to the Police and they are not only obliged to investigate but also to make sure the animal receives the help which it needs."
The animal protection societies have claimed that ”photos alone” may not be enough to prosecute, but Lene Kattrup disagrees. "Looking at the photos of Akeem Foldager, it is my opinion as a veterinarian that the Danish animal welfare legislation has been violated. I would stand up and say that in court”.
"It is an uphill struggle to fight for animal welfare in Denmark. As a veterinarian, I have been working for many years to improve animal welfare, including a campaign to ban animal brothels. You have to have broad shoulders because not everyone wants to hear what you have to say. But we must not give up."
Kattrup adds that the Veterinary Health Council in Denmark, which advises politicians on veterinary and animal welfare matters, occasionally makes statements about certain interventions based on photographic evidence alone. It seems the claim that "pictures alone" are not enough to go after Helgstrand is just another bad excuse.
It is Lene Kattrup's opinion that the extensive photo material documents that the horse has been subjected to pain, fear and significant discomfort, which would constitute irresponsible treatment in violation of Paragraph 1 of the Danish Animal Protection Law. She feels that the photos clearly show marks from excessive use of sharp spurs on the horse's sides and moreover, a gaping mouth and blue tongue as signs of hypoxia. She would expect the spur marks to have healed by the time the veterinarian from the Danish Equestrian Federation examined Akeem.
"The photos show that the tongue is entirely squashed because of the sharp bit and as a veterinarian I would be worried about serious lesions to the tongue as a consequence of a strongly compromised circulation as well as crushing of the soft tissue. This can lead to acute trauma as well as delayed trauma such as neuropathy and local necrosis of the tongue tissue. The horse looks very uncomfortable and seems to suffer at the same time as having his neck in a very short position."
Lene Kattrup further underlines that any pain and fear felt by Akeem during the incident would - in itself - be enough to warrant police investigation, regardless of whether the horse still had symptoms five days later when examined by the vet chosen by the Danish Equestrian Federation.
Where do we go from here? It's clear where we should go. It is not good enough that federations have ethical guidelines and sponsors kick the riders out who are caught on camera. Animal cruelty is a criminal offense and the law which prohibits it should be enforced. A precedent must be set before we will see real change. Whether it's going to happen this time is still up in the air.
We leave you with some more photos from the open day at Helgstrand Dressage. The photos show the four-year-old stallion Vincent Maranello being worked by Andreas Helgstrand and Morten Thomsen. We want to make sure the Danish Equestrian Federation includes a thorough instruction in how to fit a regular snaffle bridle when they sit down with Andreas Helgstrand and explain to him how to use a double.