Keep Arizona’s Wild Horses Wild

The U.S. Forest Service plans to remove a herd of wild horses from national forest land near the Salt River in the Tonto National Forest, about 75 miles northeast of Phoenix as early as Friday 8/10. Forest Service officials say the horses must be removed from land they have roamed for decades as a matter of public safety. Arizona’s government officials have responded to constituent pressure to oppose the action.

If you want to add your voice to those opposing the death or capture of these horses, please contact these representatives and respectfully express your opinion. Contact info. for Arizona’s two senators follows. Find contact info. for House members here.

Sen. John McCain
(602) 952-2410

Sen. Jeff Flake
(202) 224-4521

Here’s my message:

Dear Sen. McCain, I believe more Americans would like to see the Salt River wild horses roaming free than have them killed or “managed” in one of the inhumane federal holding facilities. I, for one, prefer that my tax dollars pay for preservation of Arizona’s open space and wild animals. I do not support my elected officials spending millions to fund the substandard “refugee camp” existence of the tens of thousands of horses already confined, let alone adding the Salt River band. Leave the wild horses wild.

Sign the petition:
Stop the Annihilation of the Salt River Wild Horses!!!

More Information:
AZ senators, reps take up battle over fate of Salt River horses
Hundreds Rally to Save Arizona’s Salt River Wild Horses

Cruel or necessary? The true cost of wild horse roundups

No Excuse for “Training” Trauma

From a Facebook “conversation,” here’s a new one: using religion as a reason to employ the horse “training” technique known as “laying a horse down.”

The spirited discussion started when a friend shared a post promoting a horse-training demonstration by Paul Daily of Wild Horse Ministries, a portion of whose online photo gallery is shown in the screenshot below.


The Facebook poster used the bottom picture with the caption “No life is more secure than a life totally surrendered to God.”

Apparently one way this trainer illustrates “surrender” is to make the young horses in his training demonstrations lie down in full tack. From his website:

Paul does not “break horses”, he “gentles” them, with words and pats, until they let him bridle, saddle and ride them – all within two hours. Occasionally, Paul can get the horse to totally submit by lying down. Paul says the Lord has given him this ability and is using him to reach people who shy away from organized religion and church. As the horse submits to Paul’s ministrations, people submit to God’s. “We have witnessed individual lives being changed because of their willingness to submit to Jesus Christ”, says Paul.

I’m sorry, the average young horse being saddled for the first time in a public setting is not going to simply choose to lie down and rest in response to “words and pats.” The “laying a horse down” method is accomplished with the force of leverage.

Mr. Daily’s demonstrations require that organizers provide “an untamed but rope/halter broke colt two to three years old.” For a young, inexperienced horse all the new sensory input of being in a strange place plus wearing a bridle and saddle plus the spectators surrounding him equals the type of stressful situation in which a flight animal needs to be allowed to move. Take away his legs and he has no relief, no hope of escaping to safety and surviving this encounter. He does what any prey animal is hard-wired to do – he checks out, freezes, plays dead.

Therefore, just because some horses who experience this “laying down” technique stay down without restraint doesn’t mean they enjoy or are even okay with being rubbed all over and sat or laid on as some “trainers” do. They have checked out, disconnected their brains from their bodies, so to speak.

It’s a function of neurobiology called “tonic immobility.” Search and you’ll find the condition referenced in relation to instinctive behavior of prey animals when facing imminent death, as well as to humans experiencing such trauma as physical abuse or sexual assualt.

For a prey animal, “to surrender all” is to die. I have written about this before and I also recently came across an excellent blog post on the same topic. The thoughtful writer has researched (and footnoted) her journey from supporting the “laying down” technique to questioning it.

I’ve seen “laying a horse down” defended as an effective way of creating trust, making the horse safe to work with, ensuring obedience and “extinguishing” a horse’s fear and I think they’re all nonsense. Dangerous nonsense that creates a horse with PTSD that’s going to show up sometime, maybe many years and several owners later. You know the one: that tried-and-true horse who just completely blows up one day with no apparent provocation, seriously injuring himself or his rider/handler?

The person posting the photo of Mr. Daily’s use of the technique on social media was all about the importance of “submission” and wrote passionately about her relationship with God. I support her right to choose to submit to whatever or whomever; what I don’t support is anyone forcing a horse or any other flight animal into a submissive position that triggers the same autonomic response as being captured by a predator.

I want to be absolutely clear here that I have no objection to either the poster’s or the trainer’s references to religion or to the latter’s attempt to find parallels between horse training and being a good Christian.

I firmly subscribe to the version of “religious freedom” I grew up with: everyone is free to worship – or not to worship – as he or she sees fit. That means nobody has the right to impose his or her religious choices on anyone else; that would be denying religious freedom, not practicing it.

Organized religion is not a priority in my life, but I readily acknowledge there can be a spiritual element to the human connection with horses. And I also know from decades of experience that working with horses inevitably brings up issues from and teaches lessons applicable to the lives we live away from the barn. If your religion is of prime importance to your daily life and your relationships with other people, that’s going to show up the way you connect with your horse, as well.

I just don’t think that connection is best explored by forcing a horse to submit to this traumatic technique. No matter how gently it’s done or how pure the motives, making a horse lie down while you touch him, stand over him or sit/stand/lie on him is not training.

I would go so far to say that in any situation other than, perhaps, to administer life-saving medical treatment, “laying a horse down” is plain and simple abuse right down to a very deep cellular level. The animal’s own physiology belies any assertion that this method should be regarded as humanely training or gentling a horse.

The Beginning of the End of the “Big Lick?”

Things are heating up in the fight to end the barbaric practices endemic in the “big lick” Tennessee Walking Horse industry.

A Kentucky congressman has introduced a bill to help end “soring” by strengthening the Horse Protection Act.

The former president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association has been threatened with bodily harm and taken his family into hiding.

And the Humane Society of the US has created a program called “Now That’s a Walking Horse!” that provides grants of $500 for individuals or $1,000 for groups using TWHs outside the showring.

You can weigh in for or against HR1518 and read some very interesting comments by people on both sides of the issue.

Here’s one from someone opposing the bill:

I grew up riding Tennessee Walking Horses. While my family and I are thoroughly opposed to soring, the use of pads and chains as performance and training aids are similar to training aids used by any athlete. Many basketball players wear special shoes in order to increase their vertical jump distance. The use of padded shoes on Tennessee Walking Horses is similar and enhances their naturally smooth, pronounced gait. The use of chains is similar to runners wearing weights on their legs to increase their strength.

Uh huh. Right. Makes me want to track down Anonymous there and send him on a long hike wearing four-inch platform heels and a pair of “action” chains. Bet that’d be real purty.

Update 12/13: Tennessee Walking Horse trainer, show judge indicted for animal cruelty

TWH Tide Turning?

The “big lick” cadre of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry faced another setback last week at the annual National Celebration show.

Honors, billed as the walking Horse of the Century, failed his soundness check by a USDA inspector before the class that would have qualified him for the “Super Bowl” of the TWH show season, the World Grand Championship class. Two other horses failed inspection in the same qualifier, leaving only three contestants.

Hope all those high-ranked competitors in the TWH “big lick” industry who have a history of soring violations will sit up and take notice that change is necessary. The horse-aware public is watching and many of us don’t like what we see.

One Horse Abuser Down. How Many More Still Soring?

Well, finally one of the big-time, “big-lick” Tennessee Walking Horse trainers is going down for 22 counts of animal cruelty. (No jail time, more’s the pity)

Sadly, Jackie McConnell’s $25,000 fine and 20-year ban won’t end the abuse. The only thing that would accomplish that would be the TWH industry turning away from the horrific practices that create the grossly artificial “big lick” movement.

Why not judge walking horses for the beauty and comfort of their natural gaits? Why do humans have to take a good thing and then bend and twist it into a terrible caricature?

I just do not understand who would rather look at this poor tortured horse on weird stacked shoes moving like some kind of disjointed bug …

Than this lovely young TWH mare (with not shoes at all) showing her nice, big rolling walk that is both ground-covering and very comfortable to ride. (As TWHs were bred to be.)

More information:
Big Lick Tennessee Walking Horses: The greatest freak show on earth
What Is Soring? –  Understanding Soring and Helping To Stop It
The Sore Tennessee Walking Horse


Some Rotten Riding in Denmark

So now it’s Danish dressage officials defending riders forcibly over-flexing their horses at the recent national championships. It doesn’t take a genius to look at the pictures posted by spectator Veronica Starstone Merlin and see that “aggressive force” is most certainly being used to crank these horses into these postures. Never mind that the FEI explicitly deemed this type of force “not acceptable” more than two years ago.

Call it rollkur, low/deep/round or anything else, it’s forcing a horse into a position isn’t good for him. Can I prove that? No. Do I know it to be true with every fiber of my being. Yes. Not sure? Read this for some sensible, knowledgeable information.

I’m just happy to see the issue continues to get coverage on the web and in social media. Bravo to Ms. Merlin and to Danish-based for calling it as they see it and to every other person and media outlet that speaks out against this awful excuse for training.
(Photo above courtesy Veronica Starstone Merlin)


The Dominance Paradigm, Right in My Back Yard

What are we doing when we repeatedly turn to violence and brutality to coerce our horses to do what we want or to force them not to do what we don’t want? Twice in one week recently I witnessed fellow professional horse “trainers” making that classic mistake: confusing aggression with communication and fear with learning.

Both incidents happened while I was involved in teaching lessons and both were egregious enough to draw my attention away from my students and their horses.

First was a Western trainer on a very young-looking little sorrel horse, repeatedly jerking the horse in the mouth, spurring it and hitting it with the reins over and over throughout the entire hour-plus I was on the property.

In this case, it was not obvious even to two educated, experienced horsewomen what exactly the trainer was trying to accomplish. The horse would spurt forward and the guy would grab with his spurs and jerk it to a stop. Then he’d grab it with the spurs again and hit it on the hindquarters with the reins, over and under, and the horse would spurt forward again. Rinse and repeat over and over and over. Tanque Verde Stables, Adam Bradley

Sure looked to me like a good way to teach a horse either to grab the bit and run off or to flip over backward. I found out later the latter was what the trainer was trying to undo, “fix” the horse in one session to stop rearing with its owner. Right. I expect that was not terribly successful.

I saw similar “training” techniques employed by this trainer over several months until, finally, my client couldn’t take it anymore and moved her horse out of the facility. Then found out later that the same professional seriously injured another client’s former horse ramming the animal into a fence to “teach her to stop.”

I generally find the only to entice a horse (or human) to give up on a habit is to replace the undesirable behavior with something else. To do that, it’s often necessary to explore the cause of the habit and to remove that cause. For example, removing an ill-fitting saddle as prelude to teaching a horse that bucking isn’t the only way to behave under a rider. Even in those instances when the source of the bad behavior isn’t discernible, you still need to find some way to connect with the horse’s brain, to physically prepare him to learn instead of just reacting to gross stimuli.

A horse in full-on flight response – or in fight mode, for that matter – is in no fit state to learn anything. He shuts down all his brain but the primitive part that is trying to save him from danger. When trainer = danger, the horse will never learn anything useful.

The second horse I saw being hit instead of helped by his trainer was punished during a jumping lesson for refusing to jump a small oxer off a right-bend corner. I don’t know how long the lesson had been going on when I noticed him, but my gaze was drawn to the horse refusing the jump by trying to duck out the right side.

I watched the rider circle again and set the horse up to refuse all over again – no right bend, no outside rein support and the horse so far on the forehand the rider had no horse in front of her leg at all. The horse kept ducking right, though really he was just continuing to fall over his right shoulder as he had done through the entire turn. (Not unlike the horse in the video who just kept falling to the left out of a poorly executed bending line.)

The fix for this is pretty straightforward: have the rider actually bend the horse, rock him back on his hindquarters and balance him up under her seatbones supported by the left rein. After a few stops maybe the horse needed the incentive of a small voice correction or a tap with a jumping bat on the right shoulder about three strides out. This was a horse I had seen in the past to be honest and willing when ridden properly, so even that might not have been necessary.

Instead of coaching the rider to correctly set the horse up to jump, the trainer appeared to blame the horse. The next time he ducked out, the rider leapt off, the trainer mounted and faced the horse toward the middle of the fence and proceeded to whale on him with the bat. Because, of course, it makes perfect sense to a horse that if he makes a mistake induced by Rider A, then Rider B will get on and hit him and he’ll know the next time what to do for Rider A. Or Rider B. Or anyone at all. Also, it will become perfectly clear while he’s being held at a standstill and hit with a bat that he must jump the fence the next time he’s cantered to it. (Just like the horse in the video clearly understood that dumping his rider and having a crop chucked at him were connected.) Mathias Fernandez

After the beating, the trainer bent the horse right on a circle and rode him very strongly to the fence with plenty of rein and leg support and then hit the him repeatedly as he was approaching and jumping without a sign of ducking out. This happened over and over until my lesson was finished and, thankfully, I left.

So, unsupported by a rider the horse runs by the fence and gets hit. And, supported by a rider the horse jumps the fence and gets hit. As far as I can tell, neither the horse nor the student, Rider A, learned a darn thing here except how not to jump an oxer on a right bend.

I did not see whether the student ever remounted to attempt the jump. I did, however, hear all about the big welts all over the horse afterward from a fellow boarder who was rightly upset and appalled.

What, exactly, did these professionals think they were accomplishing? Teaching the horse a skill? No. Creating new positive associations to encourage specific behaviors in the future? No. What they were doing had nothing to do with training or teaching or anything else productive.


Beautiful Horse or Creepy Crippled Bug?

Why do people have such a propensity to grossly overdo? To take a horse that has distinctive movement and then pervert it out of all recognition from something beautiful to an exaggerated caricature.

Here’s how a Tennessee Walking Horse should move. Lovely horse + unobtrusive rider = an attractive picture.The owners of this horse have had to go to court to be able to compete in the national championship class – not to win but to make a point about the awful things done to make some TWHs achieve movement known as the “big lick.”

Here are “big lick” Tennessee Walking Horses in the world championship class, which one of the Fugly blog readers aptly described as “a giant crippled spider with a vulture sitting on its back, eating it alive.” Seriously, don’t these poor horses and their riders kinda creep you out?


Rollkur at the Olympics Ignites Social Media Protest

It has been gratifying to see the outpouring of negative responses online to the obvious use of the “training” technique called Rollkur in Olympic dressage competition.

The technique, which involves riding with a horse’s head pulled to its chest in hyperflexion, was addressed in a wishy-washy set of guidelines by the FEI in early 2010.

I can’t say I’m surprised that the FEI didn’t follow through and take real, decisive action to stop the practice. Calling it something else (Low, Deep, Round) and putting in place a bunch of vague suggestions really didn’t cut it.

And given the international governing body’s “ho-hum” attitude about Rollkur, I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked to see the practice right out in the open at the Olympics.

Here’s one of the rides that’s drawing a lot of negative attention, top-ranked international rider Adelinde Cornelissen’s 81.67 test on Parzival. The Dutch rider is trained by Sjef Janssen, who with three-time Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven is credited with the invention of the practice. (Another view on the official NBC site if you want to watch it close up.)

I find it hard to watch this test through because it looks so dull, so mechanical. The horse seems heavy and slow, like he’s wading through deep water every single step. Even in piaffe and passage when the legs look springy, I see no swing in the spine and none of the undulation through the back that should carry the impulsion from the hindquarters through the rider’s hands and forward.

I keep wondering how fabulously poor Parzival would move if Cornelissen would just get off his mouth and let his back swing.

I have the same problem watching many of the top dressage competitors, who seem to have forgotten the goal of the progression of training is supposed to be lightness and ease, that brilliance can’t come from force.

It’s just so obvious that these riders are holding these horses up. You can watch them straining through their own backs to pull the horses into every movement that requires collection. When a rider is that braced in her back, the horse cannot be soft and swinging in his back. Can. Not. Period.

I went back to look at some vintage Olympic footage to find some dressage medal winners who seemed to have a better grasp (pun intended) on how to ride with balance and grace.

Take a look at the 1984 gold medal performance of Reiner Klimke on the 17-hand Westphalian gelding Ahlerich. Dr. Klimke sits quietly and you can see his hands sometimes move to help steady or straighten the horse, but once the adjustment is made you see the horse improve in the movement and his hands go still.

What a bright, engaging performance this is. Light, springy and certainly forward. Notice how you can see the energy created by the hindquarters undulate forward into and through the rider’s hands. That’s what engagement and suppleness look like.

Watch the test performed by 1976 gold medalist Christine Steukelberger and Granat, a massive Holsteiner gelding. This is a less expressive, more correctly workmanlike performance than Klimke’s above, but still the rider helps the horse instead of hindering. You can sometimes see her lean back and brace a bit – notably in the canter pirouttes – but her hands and legs are quiet throughout.

It’s not the waving torso and constant bang, bang, bang with the legs and hands that seem to be the hallmark of some of today’s top winning competitive riders. They certainly have forgotten that the mark of a truly great rider is to make him- or herself invisible so that all the attention focuses on the horse.

Think Spanish Riding School: when you picture the quadrille in your mind’s eye, you don’t think of riders flailing and flapping away. You see the lovely horses dancing seemingly without effort.

No dancing without effort for the horses subjected to Rollkur, hyperflexion or low/deep/round. And, sadly, instead of disappearing, the technique seems to be crossing into other disciplines, as well.

I certainly hope concerned horse lovers all over the world keep up the pressure on the FEI to well and truly ban Rollkur in all its forms.



The Dominance Paradigm Rides Again

Well, it looks like the dominance paradigm is alive and well in Michigan. I’ve written before about my amazement at the idiotic, traumatic and thoughtless things trainers seem to think people want to see them do with (to?) horses.

Well, here’s another doozy, a Tennessee Walking Horse trainer whose claim to fame seems to be getting horses to scale tall structures. Good news if you’re planning on keeping your horse in a New York City penthouse and the other tenants don’t want to share the elevator with him, I guess.

Oh, did I mention that after the horse summits the structure, you can then stand up on its back cracking a big ole whip. Seriously? Who knew there was a need for this type of thing?

Guess next time I’m in a city big enough to have really tall buildings I’d better walk around staring up to see all the horses on the roofs. D’ya suppose if you were talented enough to train your horse to do that, the pair of you could get hired as building security guards?

Thanks to Fugly Horse of the Day for shining a light on this nonsense. (Just take a peek at the foals this “trainer” raises and you’ll see one big reason he attracted the attention of the fugly bloggers.)

Oh, and don’t miss the scenes with the leaf blower and the chainsaw in the colt-starting video. (You really hope I’m joking about that, don’t you?)

Geez. As if the poor walkers didn’t have enough trouble.