Thursday, March 8, 2012

At what cost?

Just like Snoopy, I like to compete at horse shows. We show on the AQHA (American Quarter Horse Association) circuit, in trail. Snoopy liked trail the first time Tina showed him poles, which is good because I like it, too. Tina and Niki believe that a horse and rider should do what they BOTH enjoy. If the rider enjoys an event more than the horse, they'll try to help the pair be as successful as they can be, within reason.

I'm also aware that not all trainers are this way, and I am very grateful for Tina and Niki. I know of western pleasure trainers who tie their horses' heads up for hours in order to get a lower headset from them. I know of western trail trainers who put strips of nails on their poles so the horses hurt their legs if they don't lift their feet high enough to get over the poles.

I also know this kind of "training" is rampant among other breeds and other disciplines. A friend of mine recently posted a picture of a magnificent stallion who had his jaw tied to his neck with baling string, so tightly that his jaw touched his chest. He was pressing his forehead against the wall of his stall to try to relieve the pressure. I assume this was done to get more flexibility in the horse's poll.

Recently, however, I learned of the practice of "soring." Apparently, some people who show gaited horses, in an attempt to get a more exaggerated swing from the front legs, actually use chemicals on the pasterns to make the horse sore enough to lift his legs higher. If they don't burn the horse, they put things (like bolts or golf balls) against their hoof soles to make it painful for the horse to put his weight on his front feet.

What. The. Hell.

Before you ask, yes, this is illegal. Yes, anyone caught doing this is punished. And yet, for some people, it's worth the risk. My question is, what is worth the risk?

I like to win as much as the next person. But I don't want to compete my horse into early retirement. We've had that discussion.

For trainers to try to physically alter a horse to make it conform to a winning standard boggles my mind. The horse being tied uncomfortably in his/her stall learns that there is no safe place in their world. The horse who experiences pain when they knock into a pole learns that trail is a hurtful place. The horse that is physically scarred for a higher step no doubt spends their elderly years in crippling pain. It's possible that the horses who've had their heads tied up, or jaws to their chests, also end up crippled as the years go by, since their spines have been manipulated so harshly.

And what do the trainers gain? More wins today, with the chance of discovery and suspension tomorrow. A constant nagging knowledge that they aren't "training" any of these horses, any more than a plastic surgeon "trains" a nose to be smaller. And imagine the mare or stallion they've altered, through physical restraint or chemical pain. Can they honestly advertise this horse for any breeding program, when their gait or headset was not genetic?

It's one of those things that seems plain to me - find out what a horse is good at and train them to do it. Don't reconstruct a draft horse so they can run barrels. Get a barrel horse. Be honest with the owners of the barrel horse who want to ride dressage. Stop looking at each horse as a dollar sign, a means to an end.

Trainers, make your reputation as horse lovers first. And horse owners, don't use a trainer who doesn't at least respect your horse. That's the first step toward curing this abuse.

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