I’m sure a lot of you have seen this photo floating around on facebook
The first time I saw it I thought “hear, hear” but then moved along on my merry way and didn’t give it a whole lot more thought.
I love horses, that much is 100% true. But I’m also not a total bleeding heart. They are big animals with minds of their own and I understand that not every horse can go in snaffle. I don’t have a problem with “big bits” in theory, and I generally believe the adage that a bit is only as severe as the hands holding the reins. I also believe that upper level competition often requires a little more “whoaing power” than us peons down at the lower levels would need, especially on XC where they need to go from high speeds to slower speeds as quickly as possible. However – I do think that there’s a line between what is acceptable and what is just plain abusive. When this picture of Marilyn Little and Scandalous at Boekelo popped up on the internet, I admit to being a bit horrified.
A double twisted wire gag, with one rein, a lever noseband with a chain under the jaw, and a running martingale. That combination is enough to set any horseman back on their heels a bit. But the nail in the coffin? The evidence of blood in the mouth.
This isn’t the first time that the internet has been set ablaze by ML and her bitting choices. The very first one that I remember was not long after she made the switch from show jumping to eventing and this photo appeared on the cover of Practical Horseman. Hard to see here, but yes that’s a chain flash. Never seen one before. Never seen one since.
Her bitting choices are known to be on the less conventional side. That lever noseband with the chain under the jaw makes an appearance on her horses quite often, as do somewhat unconventional bits.
There’s no doubt that she is a great rider and highly successful. I totally understand that sometimes there are strong horses that require something a little outside of the box. I don’t understand what’s going on when the majority of the horses in one barn end up in these kinds of contraptions, especially when they end up bleeding from the mouth. I also totally understand that sometimes horses bite their tongues (granted, I have never seen it, but I know it happens on rare occasion). I REALLY DON’T understand how the same rider could have blood in yet another horse’s mouth at yet another competition only a week later.
link (edited 10/28: the professional photographer that took the most damning photos has had them removed from facebook, so this link is no longer active. You can still reference another photo below, you just have to zoom in.)
There’s another angle here where you can see it very clearly as well, in case there’s any question about the authenticity of the above photos.
This looks bad for us. Real bad. The first time raises some serious eyebrows. The second time establishes a pattern. There’s a trend here, and it’s not a good one. I might not make any friends with this post or this statement, but it has to be said:
What in the holy hell is going on here?
WHY has the same rider had two horses with blood in the mouth, at two competitions, on two continents, within one week of each other, and gotten away with it both times? If we’re just missing it – how do we catch it? How do we punish it? And more importantly – how do we prevent it? If this can happen, multiple times, with zero consequences, something is very very wrong. Somehow we seem to have forgotten that the welfare of the horse is the first priority.
I chose ML as the subject here because so many pictures like this have surfaced in the past week, but it’s certainly not fair to throw her into this alone, because she’s not the only one to end up with blood on her horse in competition. There have been incidents like this showjumper and this dressage rider, where blood was noticed and they were immediately eliminated. And of course Steffen Peters’ elimination from the World Cup that happened earlier this year because of bloody spur marks. The difference is that those instances were dealt with appropriately and these with ML have not been. Blood in the mouth and bloody spur marks cannot be allowed to happen at any level without some kind of penalty. So how do we make sure that we’re catching it every time, especially in eventing where the rules are so vague?
The FEI eventing rulebook only addresses blood in one brief and fairly vague section:
526.4 Blood on Horses
Blood on Horses may be an indication of abuse of the Horse and must be reviewed case by case by the Ground Jury. In minor cases of blood in the mouth, such as where a Horse appears to have bitten its tongue or lip, or minor bleeding on limbs, after investigation the Ground Jury may authorise the Athlete to continue.
It seems like in both of these recent cases that the blood was not noticed and not investigated. The USEF rules for eventing are even more vague and don’t address the issue of blood in the mouth at all.
4. SPURS—Spurs must not be used to reprimand a horse. Such use is always excessive, as is any use that results in a horse’s skin being broken.
5. BIT—The bit must never be used to reprimand a horse. Any such use is always excessive.
To add fuel to my own personal fire, I came across a couple more rules and rule change proposals yesterday that made me wonder what exactly we’re thinking.
The first was this – a USEF rule change proposal for dressage.
which seems to be targeting bridles like this in particular
followed by this note, put out by a USEF Steward General to other stewards:
“I am attaching a few updates that have been clarified for me by the FEI regarding tack, that have to date, not been added to the FAQ’S online.
The first is regarding the accepted diameter of a snaffle bit that is allowed in competition. After much discussion regarding the verbiage in the FEI Dressage Rules and the lack of language in the FEI Eventing Rules, the FEI has notified me that there is no legal minimum requirement as to the diameter of a snaffle bit allowed in competition.
The second is regarding the new bridles that are being seen. One is manufactured by Stubben as the 2500 Freedom, and the other is being called an “ear cutout” by the other manufacturers. Both have been declared illegal by the FEI.
Thirdly, please be aware that “attachments” to the bridle of any kind are illegal.“
So… there is no minimum diameter of a bit, but we want to ban the use of bridles or attachments designed to make the horse more comfortable? This is the Stubben bridle in question:
Ugly as sin, no doubt, but what about it is so detrimental to the horse or the sport that it becomes necessary to ban it from dressage competition? The idea is not that dissimilar from a Micklem. Shouldn’t we be embracing changes and advances in technology that could make our horses more comfortable? I also don’t understand what’s so bad about a poll cushion or similar “attachment”. A system that allows a rider to go unreprimanded after having two bloody mouthed horses two weekends in a row yet wants to ban anatomic bridles REALLY has me scratching my head. I have to wonder why it seems like the priorities in these rules are so, well… backwards.
The obvious question is – what do we do?
First, we have to care. Second, we have to be heard. Third, we have to come up with solutions. Maybe we need to start by defining our rules more clearly. Maybe we need to have stewards at the end of each phase specifically to check the mouth and sides of the horse. Maybe we need to be more proactive about penalizing those who toe or cross the line, regardless of who they are. Maybe we need to remember why we make rules in the first place. I don’t have the answer and I don’t know how to solve this problem. But make no mistake, this cannot keep happening. As soon as we cross the line into looking abusive and forget about horsemanship, there is no more sport.
To those who see pictures like these and would rather just keep quiet, make excuses, or turn a blind eye – you are part of the problem. We have to stand up, speak out, send emails, write and submit rule change proposals… do something. One voice gets lost. A lot of voices put together can make a difference. How do we fix this?