The recent European Championships brought us insight into an exciting Tokyo Olympics with many outstanding performances.
But the protest during Dutch showjumper Marc Houtzager’s round, when animal activists invaded the showjumping arena and ran around waving “stop horse slavery” placards was also a salutary warning of the shape of things to come. Ethical questions are being raised worldwide over the justification of the use of animals for sport on the world stage.
At the Olympics we are the flag-bearers for the relationship between horse and man, and performances will be held up and scrutinised as such. The public perception of horse sport is vital to its longevity, and we need to succinctly articulate our reasons for using horses for sport in a way the general public can understand.
It’s easy to alienate ourselves from the protesters, but we are all animal lovers and we all abhor animal abuse so there is common ground.
In sport we learn how to care for horses at their very best and we have immense resources to do so. The “trickle down” effect of the science and research used to create the healthiest and most high-performing sport animals benefits the entire equine population. Keeping horses in the headlines for sport serves to highlight the plight of some working and abused horses and thus provides information and education to promote welfare. Many of the top riders use their high profiles to work with equine charities.
A poorer life without horses
The benefits of interaction with horses for humans are inumerable. How right Winston Churchill was when he said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
If we did not ride horses at all there would be no Riding for the Disabled Association, no Pony Club, no riding therapy. Outdoor activities among nature have proven benefits for mental health and physical fitness, and through horses we have an example of how to be our best selves. What better anti-bullying message could there be than a huge animal that could squash us flat in a heartbeat choosing to co-operate with us?
Our sport can also be proud of its diversity. Men against women; old against young; disabled and able bodied riders competing together through partnership with animals is an inspirational example of the Olympic ethos of inclusivity.
The bond between man and horse goes back for thousands of years, and horses enjoy interacting and co operating with people. Our young horses at Elite Dressage live very naturally in herds and are minimally handled as youngsters. This is deliberate — we want them to have a childhood with their friends and choose to come to us and build trust over time.
There is mutual respect from day one. When we visit the herds, even the most nervous youngsters’ natural curiosity overwhelms them and we are soon surrounded by the group, who want our attention.
Horses are happy when they are relaxed — it shows they are content. If a horse can remain calm performing in a big stadium he is secure and content in himself and has trust in his rider.
Horses and riders have been partners for centuries. The way Marc’s horse Sterrehof’s Calimero just ignored the protesters and kept working with his rider in such a focused and relaxed way answered all the questions without words about where and with whom the horse felt safe and content.
We have every reason to be proud and to celebrate our historic relationship with horses and should work together to articulate the message.
Ref Horse & Hound; 5 September 2019