Why the Olympics?
Updated: Mar 14
Since announcing my plan to write a book to equip the International Olympic Committee with the arguments it needs to discontinue all events involving horses from the Olympic Games, I’ve received lots of messages of support. Of course, some people also disagree. “What will that achieve?” “Why throw the baby out with the bathwater?”
Let me try to explain. Eleven years ago, after the first blue tongue scandal, a group of horse advocates succeeded in getting a Danish member of parliament to ask the minister in charge (back then, that was the Minister of Justice) whether Danish law should not prohibit the use of hyperflexion of the neck in horse training. To properly address the question, the minister allocated the panel of animal welfare experts at his disposal to investigating the matter. The Animal Protection Council, as the panel was called, did just that. And it found, as you might expect, that any training method which inhibits a horse’s ability to breathe or causes physical and mental harm to the horse was unacceptable.
However, since the Danish Equestrian Federation claimed to have banned hyperflexion of the neck as a form of abuse, the council found no grounds to legislate against it. Referring to the Danish translation of the FEI’s Code of Conduct (the horse’s welfare must be paramount at all times etc.), the recommendation to the Minister of Justice was that no legal ban on hyperflexion of the neck need be introduced.
The same year, we were able to publish this report from the frontlines of equestrian sport without forced neck flexion:
The year after that, we could publish this from an FEI competition in Sweden:
The year after that, there was the rollkur photo scandal (thank you photographer Julia Rau) from the London Olympic Games. We captured some video to show that horses were indeed being hyperflexed despite the announced ban
The year after that, there was this
And the year after that, this happened
The next year, this happened
The next year, we took it easy. But other people were hard at work. Watch here
Then, in 2017, Crispin and I peaked and got ourselves thrown out of the Falsterbo Horseshow.
So, what was wrong with the decision to let horse sport sort out rollkur on its own? Mainly that this decision assumed that an industry which exploits animals can be trusted to regulate itself. Imagine animal welfare inspectors turning up at a travelling circus:
‘Yes, hello! We’re here to monitor the wellbeing of the animals who perform in your show.’
‘Ah, yes. Of course. But did you know that our internal regulations prohibit any ill-treatment of the animals?’
‘Why, no. Does it really?’
‘Well, that certainly saves us some time. Cheerio.’
Such a scenario would never occur because everyone understands that non-human animals are in danger of being abused when they find themselves in situations where humans can save money or time by abusing them. Sport horses are in that situation, so of course they need to be protected by the law.
Luckily for Danish horses, our animal welfare legislation is currently being updated again. Non-human animals are now recognized by the law as sentient beings. And the minister currently in charge of horses (the Minister of Agriculture) has asked his panel of animal ethics experts (the Council of Animal Ethics) to investigate whether sport horses in specific need better protection under the law. When I heard this, I decided that this time, the council would hear from someone other than the usual representatives of the equestrian industry (and their mates in the animal protection societies who believe that horses should be protected against pain, harm, and fear as long as it doesn't interfere too much with business as usual). I contacted the council by email and offered my help in finding academic contacts worldwide, sourcing scientific studies, navigating equestrian federation databases and such. To my delight, I was invited to come and give a one hour talk about the insights into the workings of horse sport federations I gathered during the 16 years I worked as an equestrian journalist.
The meeting ended up running half an hour late because the council had so many brilliant questions. Most are not horsey and see everything with fresh eyes. We had a lot of topics to get through. De-regulation of doping substances in recent decades to…ahem… fix the FEI’s doping problem, de-nerved horses jumping in FEI shows, rollkur, blue tongues, the mileage done by sport horses who are permanently on the road (one Danish horse I found clocked 25,000 kilometers in 2019), recent scientific publications on bit-induced mouth pain and injuries in horses, the new and updated 2020 Five Domains where individual stabling and whips are specifically mentioned as inherently negative experiences for horses. I showed the council some video of an Olympic dressage horse to see if they could spot the wide-open mouth, and they could. Even though none of them were dressage judges! It was quite impressive. I really think it was worth my going and I hope you will join me in keeping your fingers crossed for some real changes for Danish horses and horses in other countries which might follow suit. It is my belief that a clear ban on forced flexion of the horse’s neck (I suggested this could be defined as the horse having no pain-free alternative) is finally within grasp.
If you are an animal activist in another country with FEI sport and you want to coordinate, please get in touch. My email is email@example.com. I’ll be giving a talk to a Dutch animal ethics group in February and I think – even with existing laws in the biggest equestrian countries – we can do a lot to curtail the horrors that sport horses must endure.
So, what does all this have to do with the Olympic Games? A lot, if you ask me. Objectively, elite sport horses are animals who perform in an industry which exists for the entertainment of humans. But because they are socially constructed as ‘athletes’ – and ‘Olympic athletes’ at that - they are commonly assumed by outsiders, including law-makers, to have agency over their participation and automatically be treated with respect. To get people to really see what horses are put through, it is necessary to deconstruct and strip away the idea of the ‘equine athlete.’
It is generally accepted that athletes must contend with their bodies aching and with their training and performance possibly injuring them or in some cases endangering their lives. Athletes must learn to do without. Without rest, without friends and family, without freedom to do as they please. Sacrifices must be made for that all-important victory. When we construct horses as ‘athletes’, it changes what we’re willing to put them through. No pain, no gain and all that. That is likely why the FEI came up with ‘the happy athlete’ 20 years ago. And that is why it’s important to push back against this message and insist on seeing sport horses for what they really are. Animals. Animals performing in an entertainment industry. Just like animals in the circus or in films or in marine aquaria or in zoos. They should be regulated as such.
Right about now, some of you will be getting sweaty palms. ‘But what about the nice riders?’ you’ll be thinking while you’re really worried about yourself. ‘What about those of us who don’t abuse our horses?’ Yes, what about you? Are you going to the Olympic Games? If not, Equestrian being discontinued will not affect you. Unless you think your quality of life will be reduced by your inability to watch Olympic equestrian sport on TV, in which case I must question whether you have made use of that ability at all in recent decades. Remember how bad it was when you stopped watching? Well, it’s worse now.
The Olympic Games are the Achilles heel of the FEI and therefore also its member federations. The FEI was founded to govern equestrian sport in 1921 specifically because it was a requirement for Olympic sports to have an international governing body. Not only does revenue from the Olympics constitute a ‘core financing’ for the FEI (according to its published financial statements). Olympic affiliation is also the premier origin of the FEI’s status and political clout. That is why the administrators who run the FEI have never once stood up to the IOC and said: ‘no, dressage does not need to be more entertaining to people who know nothing about it’ or: ‘no, we are not going to get rid of the dropscore in jumping’ or: ‘no, we won’t be turning the cross country phase of eventing into a really fast and extra dumb and dangerous kind of showjumping’.
Take a moment to think about it. Every time the FEI has kicked a traditional equestrian value or tradition under the bus, it has done so to appease the IOC. This is why it’s necessary to get horses out of the Olympic Games. Because it is only going to get worse from here. We’re also doing it to defund the FEI and take away its monopoly on jumping, dressage and eventing, forcing it to compete with other, perhaps less brutal providers of equestrian sport.
So, what about the nice riders? I personally don’t know of people I think of as nice who would fly a horse to another continent to win a prize. Any prize. Was that harsh? Perhaps. If I’m wrong and you know someone who truly cares about their horse while somehow still being willing to subject them to the risk of shipping fever and the stress and fatigue of long-distance travel just so they can win a medal, this person will want Equestrian out of the Olympics too because the FEI is like a self-driving car programmed by cats. It’s governed by a one nation, one vote democracy and, the vast majority of national federations with a right to vote at the General Assembly have few or no horses or riders and are non-riding nations. Don’t take my word for it. The president of the German Equestrian Federation said that. If you buy my book, I’ll tell you when and where. Why is the FEI set up in this incredibly inefficient and collision seeking manner? Take one guess. Yes, it’s to appease the IOC and convince it FEI sport is ‘global’.
The national federations of countries where horse sport does take place are terrified of being banned by law. They are ready to change the rules to be (a bit, baby steps) more kind to horses. They have no idea how to do this (the Danish Equestrian Federation hilariously seems to think it involves being more like Sea World). But they know they must improve. However, these federations are constantly steamrolled by the FEI votes dominated by people who don’t care about the sport but do care about remaining in the position of being able to influence it.
I personally want nothing to do with any kind of horse sport anymore. It's all yours. But when I did (which was once true) – and if I still did – I would be pushing this book even harder. Because if you’re someone who likes to ride horses in Sweden or Denmark or the UK or Germany or Holland, you need to accept that the FEI is working harder to get your hobby banned than any animal rights organisation out there. The FEI will run your right to ride and compete straight into the pages of a history book by making more and more idiotic, quasi-random decisions in order to appease the IOC.
I hope this answers some questions. Thank you to all of you who pre-ordered the book. All 102 copies have been sent off to the IOC.
Or you can buy it from these online sellers:
Or simply google the title.