Horse welfare in the show ring – who defines abuse?

An interesting article about how FEI committees must navigate the tricky waters of horse welfare and abuse -maneuvering around the varied voices of competitors, researchers and public perception.
 Here are some highlights and examples of FEI angles on the issues of head and neck positions, tack, whipping,  and generally “abusive riding”. There’s a link to the full article at the end.

Decisions the FEI makes can trickle down to competitions at all levels, even unsanctioned local shows and even noncompetitive leisure riding.

The FEI has published a general welfare code describing how horses should be treated, managed, and ridden. … It also reminds participants that equine welfare “must never be subordinated to competitive or commercial influences.”

It’s written to allow flexibility in applying the code. For example, the code states: “Horses must only undergo training that matches their physical capabilities and level of maturity for their respective disciplines. They must not be subjected to methods which are abusive or cause fear.”

While the FEI might seem like a rigid equine welfare defender, some critics claim the organization is too lax with certain issues—especially those that challenge the status quo of competitive equestrian sport.

Individual disciplines have specific welfare guidelines in their rulebooks. In dressage, for example, judges can “discreetly” inform the C-Judge—who makes the final decision regarding elimination in the case of welfare breaches—that they’ve noticed a problem such as bleeding, lameness, or “abusive riding.” The rules do not give further details about what’s considered abusive in dressage.

WHIPPING. The show jumping rules mention “excessive” spur use (with one detail: no bleeding allowed) and rapping. They get very specific when it comes to whip use. Riders can’t whip horses on the head, can’t whip more than three times in a row, can’t break the horse’s skin with the whip, can’t whip after they’ve been eliminated, and can’t whip “to vent an Athlete’s temper.”

HEAD POSITION.  In FEI reining neither “head” nor “neck” appears in the rulebook. Vaulting rules don’t describe head and neck position, either. They do address the use of fixed side reins—specifically, that there should be two, and that in the warmup ring they shouldn’t be attached “for an excessive period” and that horses should be “allowed to move freely for a period of time” before they’re attached again.

Where the FEI does mention the term hyperflexion is in its guidelines for stewards. In the annexes of the FEI Stewards Manual for Dressage, it states: “Long, deep and round riding is accepted, unless used excessively or prolonged (hyperflexion of the neck). There is a danger when copied by unskilled riders.”
The FEI rules do state that during competition, “the head should remain in a steady position, as a rule slightly in front of the vertical, with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck, and no resistance should be offered to the Athlete.”
They do not mention head position in warmup.

For the FEI there’s a distinct difference between “low, deep, and round” (LDR) and hyperflexion. In LDR a horse brings his head behind the vertical naturally, or his rider encourages him into this position without using force, for a short period. In hyperflexion, however, a rider forces the horse behind the vertical with aggressive techniques, for longer periods.

Researchers have shown certain benefits to this LDR position—namely that it increases the range of motion in the back and legs, allowing for freer, even more exaggerated movements. They say this can lead to improved performance—but also to increased injury risk and welfare issues, especially if the position is prolonged.

TACK  As far as tack is concerned, it must be “designed and fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury.”

The use of ­nosebands—in particular, tight nosebands—came under International Society for Equitation Science scrutiny in 2012.

“Tight nosebands can deny the horse at least four normal oral behaviors, push the insides of the cheeks against the molar teeth, constrict blood vessels, and can be painful.  They can even cause permanent damage to the nasal tissues. What’s more,  they prevent horses from opening their mouths, which is one way horses express discomfort.” Dr. Paul McGreevy.

Yet nosebands are required tack in FEI dressage competitions. Even so, dressage rules state they “may never be as tightly fixed so as to harm the horse.”

 “We consistently review our rules on tack and saddlery to ensure they are fit for purpose, and new research is factored into that review,” he says. “FEI stewards officiating at FEI events and the Olympic and Paralympic Games check all the saddlery, including nosebands and bits, of every horse competing to ensure that the rules are followed.” FEI veterinary director Göran Akerström.

THE PUBLIC: horse sport’s “social licence to operate”.

The way FEI horses are managed can affect how the entire world views equestrian sports.

Horse sport operates with a social license from the public for horse sport to take place, and you need to build that trust and that transparency with the public to enable that virtual ‘license’ to be approved,” Roly Owers, MRCVS, CEO of World Horse Welfare

 “It’s like when you see blood on a horse. What does that mean? In many cases, it’s not harming the horse. But it sure looks bad to the public. So even if it’s just a nick, the horse is there foaming in the mouth, and it looks horrible. Is the welfare of the horse compromised? Probably not. But you still have to make that decision to defend the sport.” FEI head veterinarian for the U.S. Kent Allen

High-level sport horses must live up to the FEI image of the “happy athlete.” The FEI oversees these animals’ welfare through a rigorous system of rules, verification, and enforcement. And while it still has to jump through the hoops of committee meetings to ensure fair play for all members worldwide, it keeps close ties with researchers to ensure it’s fulfilling its position as role model for riders of all levels, disciplines, and nationalities.