Mind Over Miller: Paying the price for a competitive edge
Dr. Miller shares his views on how some modern horsemanship training methods have adversely affected the industry.
Jan 01, 2015
A German veterinarian and experienced horseman, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, wrote a book, Tug of War: Classical Versus "Modern" Dressage: Why Classical Training Works and How Incorrect "Modern" Riding Negatively Affects Horses' Health, some time ago that created a lot of controversy, especially in Europe. In it, he condemned many of the common excesses seen in continental horsemanship, particularly the practice of Rollkur (severe overflexion of the head and neck). Although the author has many supporters for whom abusive horsemanship techniques are intolerable, he also has many resentful critics.
Personally, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Heuschmann. As with so many other unnecessarily inhumane techniques seen in every equine breed and discipline, human ego and financial greed explain the popularity and acceptance of Rollkur.
Where does welfare fit in?
Trafalgar Square Books has now published another, more recent book by Dr. Heuschmann, Balancing Act: The Horse in Sport, an Irreconcilable Conflict? I want to quote a passage from the book:
Although I can’t describe myself as an insider on the Western riding scene, I know from my own observation that modern competitive Western sports, such as reining, sometimes involve methods of training and preparation that are excessively harsh to the horse.
Images seen in these Western events sometimes exceed the imagination of horse people from outside this discipline. During important competitions and championships, incidents occur nightly that should arouse animal welfare concerns. I would like to emphatically encourage my veterinary colleagues who live in the land of origin of this previously wonderful sport to open your eyes and muster your courage to expose abuses. Only in this way can we work actively for the preservation of equestrian sports. We should not wait and watch until animal welfare organizations do this job for us!
Like Dr. Heuschmann, I am a veterinarian. I have seen and understand the damage that unnecessarily coercive training methods do to horses. Like him, I love horses and I approve of horse shows. I know that the sport of showing horses has contributed to the breeding of better horses. But, like him, I deplore the excesses that greed and ego have created in the industry, causing pain, discomfort, and often damage to the horse.
This book is superbly illustrated. It is a complex study. It may overwhelm some readers. I quoted a passage regarding Western horsemanship, but the book largely is devoted to classical European horsemanship—dressage.
Too much, too young
As important a contribution to the welfare of the horse as this book is, I regret that it omits one major cause of eventual unsoundness. That is, starting colts at too young an age and overworking them before maturity.
I remember when most American horses purchased for use as jumpers or dressage horses were Thoroughbred racetrack rejects. Then, the warmbloods started to arrive from Europe. They were expensive. I asked many clients why they were willing to pay so much for warmbloods when Thoroughbreds—great athletes—were available for so much less.
The most common answer I got was, “Because they stay sound.” Well, I knew why they stayed sound. I had been to Europe.
The colts weren’t started until 4 years of age. The riding arenas were neither too hard nor surfaced with deep sand as is so common in California. They had resilient surfacing materials. The trails through the forests and fields were usually resilient, too, because of the moist climate.
The irony is this: Today the Europeans are emulating us—starting 2-year-olds! And guess what? It keeps the veterinarians busy.
Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his website at robertmmiller.com.