"Why do you always publish this type of pictures of Andreas Helgstrand?" That's a question we get sometimes and only one answer is needed: "Because you are still asking that question". As long as there are people who can look at photos like these and only pity the person holding the reins, we have a job to do. Remnants of taboo to shatter. But for those who really want to know what makes Andreas Helgstrand hit the headlines again and again, here's a brief history lesson from the only people who can tell you the truth about Epona.tv.
To start with, the real question is this: Why don't all the other horse media publish this type of pictures of Andreas Helgstrand? Because they can't. If they did, they would lose all their advertisers and their access to the top riders and the ability to get accreditation at shows. To a large extent, equestrian sport media is forced to pretend this stuff isn't happening. Just like everybody else.
Here at Epona.tv, we're only interested in horse sport from the welfare angle because we think equestrian sport is cruel on the whole and belongs in the history books. We don't care if people in the industry are angry with us. We almost never go to horse shows. The last time was in 2013.
On the rare occasion we do go to a horse show, we always come home with the makings of a major international scandal, though. That's because equestrian sport is super ugly. As in seriously fugly if you're not afraid to really look. In 2013, that scandal was Andreas Helgstrand having taken his sick horse off medications in order to be able to compete. It was not a difficult story to research. Helgstrand admitted it himself on live radio and we heard it on our way home in the car. It was not some big secret we had to sniff out. We were just the only media to question whether it was okay in the first place to ride an oxygen deprived horse in a competition.
Everybody else was like: "Oh, poor baby. Did the nasty horsey go blue in the face and not win you a medal?" That tends to happen when your main focus is the sport. The horse becomes secondary. We try to make sure we approach matters the other way around.
We also happened to have some footage of Helgstrand riding the horse quite hard in the warmup. So why were we filming him and not everyone else? The answer to that is that we were there with two cameras and filmed dozens of riders over a few hours and as usual, Helgstrand stood out for a couple of reasons, one of which was his entourage. It included his father, the President of the Danish Equestrian Federation, Ulf Helgstrand, the main sponsor of the entire championships, ECCO's Hanni Toosbuy Kasprzak and international judge and former team veterinarian, Hans-Christian Matthiesen.
Andreas Helgstrand's cheerleading squad on the day was not exceptional. He is a mighty man with a lot of power. That alone makes him a good story for us and perhaps also explains why the advertisement funded, industry subsidized equestrian media in Denmark tends to go a bit light on him. What other rider has a mandate to boss around the President of his Federation, ordering him to get rid of unwanted photographers by the warmup? What other rider is sitting on a horse, co-owned by the person who bankrolls the European Championships? Of course we're going to be filming Helgstrand. If any single person personifies "The Industry" here in Denmark, it is him. We were not just filming Andreas Helgstrand. We were filming the system at work.
You can read our blog about the incident here: Flogging a sick horse We also published footage of a number of other riders from the 2013 Europeans. Some of it you can watch in the blog post But they did it first.
However, his V.I.P. status is not the main reason Helgstrand has found his way to infamy. The main reason is his riding. When you see photos of him being less than gentle with the spurs and double bridle, that is really how he rides for a decent portion of the time. And more importantly, he doesn't tone it down just because someone is filming him or taking photos. He continues completely as if the photographer isn't there, making it very easy to get ugly shots of him.
This video is of a clinic in 2009 at a family day for horse lovers. Helgstrand is demonstrating to all the little boys and girls who want to grow up and be professional dressage riders how it's done. An entire generation of kids have grown up thinking that this is normal riding.
To deflect criticism of its governance, the Danish Equestrian Federation has launched a campaign called "Correct Dressage Riding" where they send "ambassadors" out to riding schools to show a film about humane riding. But in real life, the appointed "ambsassadors" of what the Federation thinks of as "Correct Dressage" are the people the Federation selects for its national teams. People like Andreas Helgstrand.
Nowadays, most riders are smart enough to take a break or ride down to the other end of the school when they see a photographer who isn't one of the tame bunch who have the good manners to throw away the ugly shots. But not Andreas Helgstrand. In fact, on one occasion when we were filming someone else, he rode in front of the camera and started telling us we weren't allowed to film (which we were) and then the coverage ended up being all about Andreas Helgstrand after all.
We're often contacted by people who have been accused of being from Epona.tv because they have been taking photos at a warmup arena. Rumour has it that Andreas Helgstrand is particularly convinced that everyone everywhere all the time is from Epona.tv. There are, however, only two of us and we spend our days making videos about things like feet.
People tell us we are running a witch hunt. They think that to be the truth because that is the only defense Andreas Helgstrand has when he is contacted by people who don't like the photos and video they have seen of his riding. All he can do is tell them that it's a witch hunt. That, for some unknown reason, strange people spend their lives following him around and taking pictures out of context in order to destroy his career. And hope that there are still some people left who are gullible enough to believe him. Of course, the Danish Equestrian Federation, headed up by Helgstrand's father, is keen to back him up. It's a witch hunt. It's not us failing to do our job of protecting the horse. It's not our judges who don't know their arses from their elbows. It's not our sport going down the toilet. No, no. It's just a witch hunt, people. Nothing to see here.
In Denmark, no other top rider has campaigned as strongly for the alleged health benefits of hyperflexion as Andreas Helgstrand. In 2010, after the blue tongue scandal involving Patrik Kittel and Watermill Scandic, Helgstrand starred in a huge clinic at the Danish Warmblood Stallion Licencing in Herning. The central theme of the clinic was hyperflexion and how necessary and beneficial it was for the horse. Helgstrand rode four horses, including a young Stamina, and told everyone that he only used the lightest of aids to hyperflex his horses and in fact, several of the horses (including Stamina) loved going deep and round so much they preferred it to every other position. Helgstrand assured the thousands of spectators present that not only was hyperflexion the best way to get a healthy, supple horse. It was the only way to get a healthy, supple horse.
We actually made a really funny series out of the event. Well, at least we thought it was downright hilarious at the time but a lot of people didn't agree and said we were being childish. For instance, our good natured snark regarding Helgstrand's explanation of piaffe ("You have to get the head down so the hind legs can come up") was untimely and ill advised, we were told. You can watch the three part series here:
When we publish photos like the ones of Stamina from Falsterbo Horseshow, we are documenting that the premise for accepting hyperflexion in the hands of "skilled professionals" is false. The pros pull too. And they pull hard. We know that Andreas Helgstrand has used tight draw reins at home to teach horses to "prefer" the hyperflexed position. We know this because he once published a sales video of Donna Silver where three riders, including himself, were busy doing just that in the background. But the audience in Herning weren't told about that.
Switzerland has banned hyperflexion by law. In Germany, the Veterinary Society for Animal Protection has recently published a report on sport horse welfare, commissioned by the Ministry for Agriculture, in which it strongly condemns the use of hyperflexion and says that the distinction between rollkur and Low, Deep and Round is not practicable. In Denmark, the animal protection society Dyrenes Beskyttelse has recommended that rollkur, hyperflexion and Low, Deep and Round be banned by law as well. The International Society for Equitation Science has also published its report and according to the scientists, no more evidence is needed before we can say that hyperflexion is bad. The results are in, folks.
The reason Denmark hasn't already banned rollkur by law is that in 2010, the Animal Welfare Council commissioned by the Ministry of Justice to investigate whether such a ban was necessary and feasible concluded that it was not. It was not feasible because there was insufficient scientific research on the matter at the time. And the ban was not necessary because the Danish Equestrian Federation had reassured the Animal Welfare Council that there were rules in place against rollkur and these rules were well enforced. The Animal Welfare council was even invited to visit a top rider and learn for themselves how gently and humanely the hyperflexed position is achieved by skilled professionals. Guess who the rider was. It was - of course - Andreas Helgstrand. But I'm assuming the draw reins didn't come out that day.
When we publish photos like the ones of Stamina in Falsterbo, we're not just documenting how Andreas Helgstrand rides. We're documenting how the official poster boy for gentle, healthy, sustainable, horse friendly Low, Deep and Round rides. We're also documenting to what extent the rules are enforced. And because Andreas Helgstrand is currently on a two year probation period after "using the double bridle incorrectly", we're documenting what "using the bridle correctly" looks like to the federations. Until we hear otherwise, it looks like this.