All competitions involving animals are under scrutiny from political groups, whether you show dogs or compete your horse in a riding club event you need to be prepared to have your motives questioned.
On the one hand it seems dreadfully sad that it has come to this and that we can no longer be carefree when competing our horses but on the other hand I totally get where some of the groups are coming from. No longer do we tolerate a circus with lions or elephants ‘performing’ for crowds and confined to small living conditions. It will not be long before the binoculars are well and truly focussed on all horse sports.
So what should we do as informed and empathetic riders and horse carers? First step is to educate ourselves and keep up to date with the research and science about good husbandry and the impact of our tack and training methods.
You may be aware of the five freedoms which are the basis of how we should look at our competitive lifestyles
- Freedom from hunger and thirst
- Freedom from discomfort
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease
- Freedom to express normal behaviour – think socialisation, movement and happy horse
- Freedom from fear and distress – think about mental and physical health and tailoring the environment to suit the horse you have.
On a day to day level we can all help our horses to lead a happy life by covering off the basics. To me gone are the days when it is acceptable to keep a horse in a stable 24/7, they need to have exercise, time out to roll and socialise, time to graze, time to be away from humans and just be a horse. Within this generalised care framework there is plenty of room to cater to each horses needs and wants. Some prefer more turnout, some less particularly if they are not fond of rain and wind!! Some like to have a paddock on their own but have a neighbour next to them, others like a herd to play with. At this stage no one is saying you have to follow a certain path, you can manage your horse’s life within the basic five freedoms.
Where I think this gets complicated is when we add competing into the mix. Some horses drag you up the ramp and adore the competition environment and I wouldn’t dispute that they are happy. For others it might be a more stressful experience or they might take some time to understand the whole concept and this is where horse welfare might be compromised. No one would argue that horses need to go on a horse box or trailer, it might be a necessity due to veterinary issues. But what is a sensible distance to travel on a regular basis? When is it too hot or too windy to travel? How can we prepare our horses for a stay away show so that they remain calm and happy? You need to ask yourself these questions and think about the parameters that you will compete within.
I see plenty of people taking their horses/ponies to shows and they are out every weekend sometimes both days expecting that horse to perform to their best. You can cause a horse to go stale and down tools! They do get fed up of yet another competition and yet another situation where they are on the lorry for the day – remember they do not get much out of competition! To me over competing is not acceptable and puts undue stress on the horse.
So all I am asking is for you to consider and plan how and when you are taking your horse to a competition, how you make their life as lovely as possible at home and how you can continuously improve yourself and the welfare of your horse. Because if we don’t step up then we may be forced to stop competing in the not too distant future.