BY LAUREN MAULDIN
In this digital age of social media, I think most equestrians are used to the idea that someone who thinks they know our horses better than us watches with a critical eye. I mean, how many of us have stopped posting in certain Facebook groups, because of any combination of the following responses:
- You need to go bitless. That curb chain is cruel!
- Why are you riding a 3yo? Jumping a 4yo? Cruel!
- If your horse isn’t grazing 24 hours a day, cruelty!
- Every horse should be clicker trained, bitless, bridleless, treeless saddle, and constantly trotting through a field of rainbows!
Okay, so maybe I made that last one up… but you get the idea.
My family, who are not horse people, will tell you that I love animals to an unreasonable degree. But amongst my horse friends, I’m pretty standard. I will choose my animal’s needs and welfare before my personal wants any day. I think it’s a privilege to be able to do so.
With animals, I try to take a gray area, pragmatic approach. I eat meat, because I believe in ethical livestock production. At this point in my life I primarily rescue dogs, but I don’t damn those who choose to buy a purebred dog from a responsible breeder. Others in this sport might make different choices than me, and that’s okay. If you’re a happy vegetarian who only believes in natural horsemanship, that’s great. Social media spats aside, I think we all recognize we’re part of a greater team that wants to continue horse ownership, training and performance at some level.
My late husband was vegan for a large part of our marriage, and met many vegan friends through local meetup groups. Their response to me riding was often not favorable, “Isn’t that so cruel? There’s so much horse abuse! What about all that leather?”
His response to them was pretty simple, “A well trained and cared for riding horse has job security and a home. Can you adopt a bunch of horses in your backyard if people were to suddenly stop riding them?”
Last year I chatted with some local show organizers about our sport and some of the innovative things happening in it. During that conversation, I mentioned the push for more visibility—live streaming, more public attendance, seeking national sponsors, and in general opening up this little world we love so much to the greater public. Their response was immediate, “The minute we open up the sport is the minute people start coming for us to shut it down.”
Truthfully, I thought that response was short-sighted, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
In late February, PETA got hold of a video clip from the Thermal livestream of Kevin Lemke getting eliminated for excessive use of whip in an open jumper class, then crashing through a combination after not leaving the ring. As of February 25th, the polarizing animal rights organization is calling for a criminal investigation.
Now let me be frank—I can’t stand PETA. That gray area, practical view of animal care I described above? They ain’t got it. For years I’ve rolled my eyes at their marketing tactics and “investigative” video clips that show incorrect information, one-off situations, and frankly falsify the important work good farmers do. But this? We all recognize that livestream, the announcer, and the buzzer. This isn’t doctored. This is terrible.
Every day, there are more eyes on our sport. We know about the armchair vets and the equitation experts, but we need to realize how much larger the lens is. Whether you love or hate PETA, they have tons of money and lawyers and volunteers. Don’t think for a second that, especially after they caught this clip, they aren’t sitting hundreds of folks on every equestrian livestream to catch any blip.
My answer is not to turn off the livestreams and hide our sport. But we have to be better.
I’m not trying to put a target on Lemke, who has apologized publicly for the event and been handed a “yellow card” warning. Though I have never been excused for excessive use of whip, I have certainly crashed through a jump in the show ring and have gotten frustrated with a horse more than I should have. If folks are honest, most equestrians would admit to the same. That doesn’t mean we should stop riding and release our horses into the wild. It means we have to band together and be better.
We’re not going to discuss the animal welfare aspects of greyhound racing or “Big Lick” Tennessee walkers (though let me go on record and say I have nothing positive to say about Big Lick and I am not educated enough to speak on greyhound racing), but the government has intervened to totally or partially shut both of those institutions down. Our short stirrup pony hunters feel a long way away from Big Lick, but to many extremist animal rights activists the two activities are the same.
The vast majority of the equestrians I’ve been around are amazing horsepeople. They love their animals, treat them well, and do not employ tactics that I would ever consider abusive. But I do think there is a culture in our sport of turning a blind eye to activities in the next barn over. That needs to end. Not only for the horse’s well-being, which should be all of our number one priority, but also for the sake of our sport.
Being a part of the equestrian sport is one of my biggest joys in life. I’m deeply proud of the partnerships I’ve built with horses over years of riding—with bits and spurs and yes, sometimes a crop which can be used as a method of communication instead of an abusive tool. I believe it’s our collective job to do the following:
Promote Animal Welfare Before All Else
It can be as small as telling someone in your barn to take a breather if they start getting aggressive. If you witness something at a show that leaves you with an uneasy feeling, tell a steward. That’s why they’re there. It’s often hard to know the full story of a situation when you only witness a tiny slice of training or interaction, but it never hurts to politely ask a question.
Continue to Build Awareness and Accessibility to the Greater Public
We’ve all heard something along the lines of, “We conserve what we love.” I believe this sport needs more people to love it. Hiding horse shows away is not the answer. The next time your coworker, friend, or general non-horsey person wants to come to the barn to meet your horse or go watch a show, invite them. Yes, it’ll take some time and explaining on your part, but wouldn’t it be nice to share the magic of horses?
Take Time to Educate Others When You Have the Opportunity
It’s easier to dismiss someone who doesn’t see things the same way you do. And yes, some people don’t want to change their opinion. Though it can be exhausting explaining horses to non-horse people, take a deep breath and try to share some of your knowledge if they want to listen. A lot of folks only understand horses from limited Hollywood exposure—so it’s either a magical rainbow connection with a teenage girl, or a tough cowboy breaking their spirit. We all know how nuanced things really are.
This is a tough situation. I hate that the events in the video happened. I hate it for the horse. I hate it for our sport. But it did, and now there is a spotlight on us. We have to figure out how to go forward and make it better for the horses and the longevity of our sport.
About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.
Read More from This Author »