Do you think for yourself, or let others think for you? We all want to believe we think for ourselves. But our thought process is constantly being filtered by the preexisting beliefs and prejudices that form our point of view. Those beliefs come in large measure from our cohorts—the people we identify with. Our clan, our tribe. Our friends and associates.
I believe that's why, in the horse world, one person can see abuse where another sees a legitimate training method.
Abuse is a topic of growing concern. This is partly because the demands of some sports—especially at the highest levels—are putting pressure on trainers to go to extremes to be competitive. Extremely slow movement, as in Western pleasure. Extremely dropped heads, as at the end of a sliding stop in reining. Extremely draped reins, requiring Stepford-mount submissiveness on the part of the horse.
The other reason for growing concern about abuse is the fact that the world is changing, aided and abetted by social media. Things that happen at point A are instantly relayed to points X, Y, and Z.
Twitter helps start a war in Egypt, for example.
And people whose sensibilities about animals may be different from our own are observing our handling and training methods, and sharing what they see. Videos posted on the Web and going viral are the most obvious way this happens. And the frequency of this tactic appears to be increasing.
The POV of people who take such actions will, of course, shape their feelings about what they see. But so, too, does our own POV shape how we "hear" their complaints.
Let's turn it around for a moment. Probably no one reading this column would disagree that placing tacks into the soles of a gaited show horse's feet to make it step higher is abusive. Yet there clearly are trainers who feel they must do this sort of thing in order to "be competitive."
It's easy for us to point a disapproving finger at such an act, because it seems so clearly wrong, and because it's not part of our own horse-world culture.
It's much harder to feel the same disapproval when the action in question relates to something that is part of our own horse-world culture.
That's how POV muddies the issue.
I wrote an article for the November 2004 issue titled "Training? or Abuse?" In it, I listed examples of measures that "most horsemen can agree are, by definition, abusive." These included excessive jerking on the reins or the lead shank. Excessive whipping or beating. Excessive spurring, especially when it causes bleeding and/or "spur dents" (indentations in the cartilage between ribs).
As I pointed out in the article, it's not that trainers who use these methods—or the owners who pay their fees—consciously approve of abusing horses. I truly believe they do not. It's that their POV makes these methods "seem" not to be abusive to them.
Add in the pressure to win big-money purses, the natural one-up-manship among trainers, and the willingness of judges to allow standards to slip, and before long, extremes become the norm.
Then new extremes are needed.
Only now, there are more and more people who are willing to object publicly, via YouTube and other social media, to these extremes.
A common response when they do is that these are "animal-rights activists" who don't understand the sport in question and who put animals' rights above our own rights as owners.
To me, that's a cop-out. It's not a question of rights per se—ours or the horses'. It's a question of humanity. If we want to think of ourselves as decent human beings, we should be concerned about not causing a horse to suffer, physically or mentally. Period.