Why have I hesitated to write this? It’s been on my mind for a while, but hasn’t been written…
Abuse? What is abuse and what isn’t? I think I may hit a few nerves here…

As seen on Facebook … https://www.facebook.com/tothorseponymag/posts/1922337571341546

Recently, I was chatting to a client. He has a super big horse and rides for fun, for relaxation, and forgetting about his work at the end of a busy day. Yes, the horse has some talent, but his main job – a switch off for his owner’s brain. The owner was telling me, sadly, that he couldn’t ride that week. Why not, I asked. Well, because his regular trainer was riding the horse in a competition the next weekend, and told him that he, the owner, doesn’t ride well enough, so if she, the trainer, wants to win, he must leave the horse to her. To say I was taken aback is a bit of an understatement…

I said to him… It’s your horse. Yes. Do you want him to compete? No. Did you organise the trainer to compete the horse? No. Did you decide that competing the horse was a good idea? No. The horse is YOUR HORSE…. YOURS…. You OWN the horse, and what the horse does or does not do, is your responsibility and choice. If you own a horse and decide to paint him pink and ride him bareback through the town eating candy floss, it’s YOUR decision, because it’s YOUR horse, not your trainer’s horse, not my horse, not your next-door neighbour’s horse.

He smiled sadly and said, well within reason, right? If he chose to abuse the horse, to ride it with barbed wire in the horse’s mouth, I’d step in, wouldn’t I? It wouldn’t be his choice then? If a trainer sees abuse, the trainer will walk out and refuse to come back? What would I do if I arrived to teach a lesson, saw a horse in something horrendous, such as wire in it’s mouth? Stay or go? And is his novice riding horse abuse? Shooo… It opens up another can of worms, since what is abuse in the opinion of one trainer, is perfectly ok for another…

which bit is abusive?)
which bit is abusive?

In some people’s eyes, riding a horse is abusive, and riding should be banned.  Other’s think pleasure riding is ok, but not competitions, racing or jumping.  Others think anything goes.  Some would ban racing, or jumping, or cross country, or bits, or shoes.  I often think that riding school ponies have a tough time, especially in the yards where teachers are yelling out kick, kick, kick, kick….  When else do we tell kids to kick animals?  Some people are fine with whatever – it’s only an animal, right?  And each and every one of us must draw the line of what we consider abuse.

Every situation could be abusive.  Is a stable abusive?  Well, if the horse is locked in 24 hours a day, with no bedding, little food, no exercise and no light, absolutely.  If kept in for a few hours at a time, with a deep bed, hay, clean water, sunlight, fresh air, a friend, maybe a view, then no, it’s not.  Saddle?  If it fits well, is clean, supple, not girthed too tightly, then sure, you’re good to go.  If it doesn’t fit, is dirty and rubbing, broken, or the horse has back pain, then it’s abusive – I know where I draw my line – do you?

Recently I was in Bali – and a friend of mine always says – how can you go there?  It’s full of stray dogs, she couldn’t cope with seeing them.  And yes, there are many strays, skinny, bad skin conditions, no where to go…  But, there are amazing people who are running de-sexing clinics, who are trapping dogs to treat their skin and vaccinate them and feeding street dogs.  When I go there, I see the improvements as much as seeing the troubles.  People also know that I spend a lot of my time helping with the Gili Cart Horses.  Again, if you see them for the first time, you can think abuse. There are still an awful lot of issues to address, but, again, things are so much better, year on year.  Friends say, how can you go there and see that?  You are meant to love horses; how can you condone that?  Because, if we all turned our backs on these stray dogs, or working horses, who would help them?  Would things improve?  Of course not.  If you can slowly make changes, dripping water on the rock, then it’s worth doing, yes?

Before and after – which is abuse? The neglected, cracked and broken hooves, or wearing shoes? This is the same horse, a couple of days apart
Before and after – which is abuse? The neglected, cracked and broken hooves, or wearing shoes? This is the same horse, a couple of days apart

I was approached to go and teach in a certain yard a couple of years ago.  I arrived and was fairly appalled at the state of the horses.  I watched part of a lesson and it was even worse.  I then discovered that riders were expected to sign a confidentiality / non-disclosure document before beginning lessons or stabling there, to ensure they said nothing about what they saw happening.  Did I agree to teach?  No.  They were set in their ways, they knew that people wouldn’t like their practices, or they wouldn’t have that document, and yet they carried on.  Would I have been able to make a difference?  No.

I see it as a wheel, turning either forwards or backwards.  With the Bali dogs and Gili ponies, the wheel is, inch by inch, rolling forwards.  Things are getting better.  With the yard above – no, the wheel is either still or more likely, rolling the wrong way.  What to do about it?  I don’t know.  I still think about those poor horses, but a cure I haven’t found.

When I owned ponies, I had one leased out to a young rider.  The pony still lived with me, but she would take him up to her trainer’s yard for lessons.  The pony always seemed happy enough, so I left it.  He was strong and could really take a hold so was ridden in a fat rubber pelham with rounding’s and a padded curb chain.  One day, he arrived back from a jumping lesson.  He seemed nervous about having his bridle removed, and then wouldn’t eat.  Gut instinct – I checked his mouth and it was raw in places, bruised and sensitive in others….  Sure enough, on checking, the trainer had changed bridles, got on and “schooled” the pony herself.  That day, the lease was cancelled, the child and parents asked to remove themselves from my yard, and the “trainer” was told what I thought.  This trainer was angry – did I not realise she was an ex-international show jumper who had won X, Y and Z?  Yes, I did, and did I care?  No.  Sadly, it can still be the ex-champion, old-school trainers who can be part of the problem.  They can get hung up on what worked then, and won’t move with the times (not always, I know a lot of old school, amazing trainers too!)  Can anyone hurt my pony?  No.  Did that pony work for his living in the school, jump, go to competitions, get ridden in his pelham and a saddle?  Yes.  Again, draw your line.

a soft rubber snaffle – is any bit abusive? Doesn’t it depend on the hands holding the reins?
a soft rubber snaffle – is any bit abusive? Doesn’t it depend on the hands holding the reins?

I went on a two-week interview at a big yard in Germany some time ago.  They produce, compete and sell competition horses, the big names with the big price tags.  And yes, I rode some of the big-name stallions.  And yes, I was offered my contract.  Did I take it?  No, that was one of the most abusive horse situations that I have ever been in, and I still have nightmares about it.  Just because your horse cost $1,000,000 doesn’t mean he has a good life…  When money is involved, the horse must produce the goods, even when not physically or emotionally ready.

When working with trainers, it is YOUR responsibility to safe guard your horse… When I was competing a lot, I’d have clinics with different trainers.  If they asked me to get after the horse, get him more reactive, push him a little harder, I would, it’s often why you need the input to make your horse that bit more…  But, if they asked me to put tack on him that I didn’t like, or jump higher when I could feel the horse struggling, then I’d refuse, because as a horse’s caretaker, it’s my job to stand by what I believe.  If I say to a pupil we are going to try X, and they were adamantly opposed, I’d respect them more for standing up for their and their horse’s rights, than for meekly following my instructions…  If you don’t agree with someone, for your horse’s sake, say so.

So, my pupil’s question – if I walked into a yard and a rider was expecting me to teach them with barbed wire in the horse’s mouth, would I stay or go?  It depends.  If it is an inexperienced rider, who has an open mind, who has been put in this situation by their tradition, culture or a bullying instructor, I’d stay.  I’d talk to them, convince them, just for today, to take the wire out and see what we could do.  I’d work on education, because if I walked out, who would be helping the horse, and this rider’s future horses?  I do walk into situations I don’t like sometimes, and by dripping water on the rock, I can usually change them.  If this was happening in the yard with the confidentiality form, or the yard in Germany, then what would I do?  Then, I’d walk away.  Because you can say what you like, it isn’t going to change.  You know that saying – If you don’t want to learn, no one can make you…  But if you WANT to learn, then no one can stop you…

So, where do you draw your personal line?


Comments (6)

So glad you have put this out. Slowly I have come to the realisation that most horses are abused in one way or other. From the poor horses I see standing in paddocks thigh no grass or water. No place to walk and really as the should. I hate the walkers. I hate seeing the horses going round and round on a circle. The beatings because the rider gets a fright. I think in time, as Bullfighting is cruel, so horse riding will become. I am so glad I am not in the horse business anymore. My opinion


Sadly, yes, I think most horses have some form of abuse – in their care, work, etc. I agree – seeing them with no free space to play is horrendous, and yes, those walkers are as bad. They need to living out with friends, walking straight, having a more natural life. In some respects I agree with you – more and more people are not riding anymore, but I think it is too big an industry to stop anytime soon. For now, we need to work on making it as natural and as good a life as we can, fix what we can, open people’s minds, and see where we end up going… If I can help people to understand, and help horses deal with their humans, I’m happy to keep plodding along…


Great blog Ashleigh. It’s a very tricky subject. I’ve moved left on the welfare spectrum over the long years of my life, from riding every day as a ringer, horse breaker, trackwork rider, Spanish stallion Tourist show rider, pony club teacher, polo groom and equine vet. It’s now been 3 years since I last rode a horse and I don’t know if I ever will again. I am torn in my feelings about that.
I agree there is abuse in all horse industries and disciplines. I could go on for hours about it. And I completely agree that theirs improvement happening in places like the Gilis, and none in most racehorse stables and many high end competition yards.
Absolutely love your term “dripping water on a stone” (can I use it?!).
I applaud your stand and your ability to draw your line… I’m having trouble determining what my line is at this moment in my life.


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