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Is Dressage Cruel to Horses? the Sport and Training Examined

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I’m always amazed at the grace and precision between horses and riders in dressage competitions. To reach this level of beauty and precision takes immense effort, but are they pushed too hard, is dressage cruel to the animals?

Many horses compete at the highest level of dressage and are not treated cruelly. However, some dressage competitions and training are cruel. Harmful conditions arise through forceful and rapid training methods. But, training practiced with patience and care is beneficial for you and your horse.

Owners of competitive dressage horses are typically animal lovers, but they also have a desire to win. Sometimes this competitive spirit overrides their better judgment and they incorporate cruel training practices.

What is Dressage?

picture of a horse and rider in a dressage competition.

The concept of horse dressage has been around since 350 BC in Athenian culture. It popularized as an art around the 16th and 17th centuries. However, it became a major sporting activity in the 19th century.

Initially, dressage became an activity for military purposes only, but later on, it became a sport for demonstrating the skills of equestrians and flaunting them across regions. These competitions eventually gave rise to a new sport, known as Dressage.

The word ‘Dressage’ originated from the french word ‘dresseur,’ which means ‘to train.’ This sport is primarily designed to discipline the horses. It’s another type of equestrian disciplines like classical dressage, western riding, reining, eventing, and western riding.

The main objectives of this sport is to develop particular skills in your horse, like coordination, flexibility, and the ability to understand signals. It is also used to create a unique and inseparable bond between you and your horse.

Dressage competitions have gained recognition of late. The horse riders and horses are judged based on their coordination and the standards of the competition. These tests are taken in an arena of 20-meter x 60-meter.

The participants have to perform various movements. The flow from one movement to another has to be done swiftly. These movements are judged on the scale of 0-10, where 0 means no movement was done, five means it was done efficiently, and ten represents excellent. All the scores are further combined and give the final score.

Horse dressage competitions have various levels. Here’s a list of the multiple levels in the dressage competitions:

  1. Intro: In the intro, the participants will be introduced to walk, trot, canter, and 20-meter circle.
  1. First level: In the first level, the participant will be expected to move around 20-meter circles, trot in 5-meter loops, and give and take the reins.
  1. Second level: This level introduces the participants to various movements such as sitting trot movements, leg yield in trot, 10-meter trot circle, changing the lead through trot, rein back, and lastly, lengthened strides in trot and canter.
  1. Third level: The competition and movements get more stringent due to half turn on haunches, collected canter, medium trot, collected trot, 10-meter canter circle, shoulder-in, and Travers, and lastly, counter canter.
  1. Fourth level: In the fourth level, movements like collected trot, extended walk, extended trot, half pirouette in a walk,  canter and trot half pass.
  1. Fifth level: Some of the fifth level movements are single flying change, three flying changes in every fourth stride, and half volte 3-5 meters in collected canter.

After these levels, begin the elite levels of dressage. These levels are essential for international dressage competitions.

The levels are – Prix St. Georges, Intermediare levels, and Grand Prix level. Out of these three, the Grand Prix level is the most difficult and advanced one. This level is observed in the Olympics and is familiar with horse dressage participants.

According to the United States Dressage Federation, dressage was considered as an Olympic sport in the Olympic Games in 1912, held in Stockholm. Initially, only military officers were allowed to compete. However, later on, in 1953, the rules were changed, and the competition was open to everyone.

However, despite its increasing popularity, horse dressage has become a controversial sport in recent times, due to its role in animal abuse and cruelty.

Cruelty In Dressage Horse Training

There have been various petitions and programs to ban the sport of dressage because of the actual or perceived cruelty and abuse done to the horses. Some animal rights organizations allege dressage competitors want to win at any cost.

This poses a grave question: Is horse dressage a cruel practice? Let’s take a look at all the cruel techniques used by horse riders to take advantage of their horses for greed and pride.

Cruel Techniques and Injuries Involved in Horse Dressage

There are various cruel techniques involved in the training of horses for dressage competition. These techniques can cause a lot of trouble.

1. Noseband Tightening

Nosebands have always been used for horses. It has various purposes, such as:

  • It keeps your horse’s mouth closed and quiet, and it can also focus, communicate, and control your horses.
  • It discourages excessive movements that allow your horse to evade the bit like crossing his jaw or holding his tongue over the horse’s bit.
  • It also helps in keeping the bridle in place.
  • It provides the balance to your horse’s head.
  • It also helps in anchoring a standing martingale.

However, this can have a lot of effects on the mental and physical health of the horse. Noseband tightening has caused a lot of changes in the behavior of the horses, temperature of the eye, and lastly, cardiac irregularities.

It has also caused other additional problems such as ulcers in the mouth of the horse, or different kinds of tongue problems. It can also cause biting of tongue or lips that can give enormous pain to the horses, and in worst cases, deformed nasal planum.

A study carried out by Australian researchers also found that nosebands are often linked to psychological damage such as increased stress and discomfort.

Because nosebands affect the heart rate and eye temperature, it is a clear indication of Equine stress. It also decreases heart rate variability (HRV), which is yet another indicator.

2. Shock Collars

Shock collars are usually tied around the neck of animals, especially dogs, to reduce aggressiveness. However, they are also used to tame horses. It has the following purposes:

  • It can be used to reduce aggressiveness in animals. The shock collar gives a little tremor to the animal in order to tame him/her.
  • Helps in curbing unexpected and unwanted behavior
  • Horses can be tamed without your presence with the help of a shock collar.
  • They are an affordable way to tame horses.
  • The intensity of the collar can be adjusted according to your needs. If you do not wish to be harsh to your horse, decrease the voltage’s strength to the collar.

Yet, it is not an ethical practice due to the severe damage it can cause to your horse. Shock collars can cause severe psychological and physical damage to your horse. It is a frowned-upon practice as per a lot of trainers due to the long-term damage it can cause.

As the shock collar is positioned in the neck and throat areas, it causes discomfort to the horse. The neck area is considered sensitive and can cause extreme pain to the animal in the name of discipline.

Additionally, it will not tame your horse, and it will make him more scared and anxious about it and increase aggressiveness. Stress affects the overall health and the long-term performance of your horse.

It will also sever the bond between you and your horse by creating a feeling of distrust and fear in your horse.

picture of a pair of horseback riding spurs similar to the type used in dressage training,

3. Spur Usage

A spur is a type of metal tool attached to riding boots used to direct the horse to gain the attention of a horse by striking the animal in the flank area. It’s often a cue for the horse to move forward or laterally.

Dressage requires you to use spurs. Now, the spur can also cause severe spur marks in horses. Spur marks can be anything like raised welts, bald spots, raw skin, or bleeding. These things can cause a lot of pain and damage to your horse.

Spur marks are caused because of issues like:

  • Various health issues like sensitive skin, allergies, excess weight, or edema create conditions that make a horse more susceptible to marking. Many horse riders forget to consider these during dressage practices and, thus, damage their horses.
  • It can also be caused by changes in the tack, i.e., any kind of change in the saddle or other apparatus that allows the horse’s body to be struck.
  • Sudden changes in the position of the riders, like shifts forward or to the rear, without consideration, are a considerable contributor to spur marks.
  • Changes in the equipment of the riders like new boots or spurs can make horses more prone to markings.

Now, spurs are considered as a cruel tool by a lot of people. It is because they cause unbearable pain and bleeding to the horses. Some horse riders often kick their horses with their feet to make them move faster.

Can you imagine the intensity of pain caused to the horses due to this? Let’s help you out. Spur marks are known to cause a lot of wounds like:

  • Superficial bleeding due to scratches and scrapes on the flanks
  • Puncture wounds so deep that they might even require medical treatment.
  • Consecutive wounds can also cause permanent lesions on the flanks
  • It can also lead to an aggressive and violent reaction from the horse that can often cause more harm and injury

Thus, the spur is also a cruel tool involved in the dressage sport that can cause harm to the horse.

picture of a horse in dressage training with his neck bent downward, in rollkur position.

4. Rollkur

Rollkur is the practice of hyperflexion of the horse’s neck. It was used as a training technique to yield more efficiency from the horses.

Rollkur is advocated to ensure that no matter how stressful or forceful the dressage is, the horse will not raise his head above the bit. Thus, it is also known to increase the scores in dressage competitions.

However, there are a lot of risk factors and cruelty involved in this act. Several petitions were filed to ban this practice in horse dressage. An astounding number of 88% of studies showed that hyperflexion causes severe damage to the horse.

Now you might wonder what caused this uproar. Apparently, the Swedish dressage rider, Pratik Kittel, used the Rollkur technique in the warm-up session. This technique was so painful that it turned the horse’s tongue blue due to the movement.

The clip went viral and caused various animal welfare groups to file petitions and group demonstrations against it. There were also request to boycott the 2012 Olympics held in London.

It can cause damage to the horse’s body in the following ways:

  • Difficulty in breathing

Rollkur can cause difficulty in breathing by obstructing the respiratory system and not allowing the air to pass through it. It narrows the opening of the windpipe and reduces the efficiency of breathing.

The horses can still breathe but at a much lower rate. This can result in increased anxiety in horses.

  • Impaired vision

Many studies have also proved that due to hyperflexion, horses are unable to view things properly.

  • Anxiety and stress

The studies showed increased levels of stress and anxiety in horses, which were made to do hyperflexions. The main reasons for these two were factors like impaired breathing and vision.

  • Damage to the horses’ neck

Hyperflexion can also put a lot of pressure on the horse’s neck.  This can damage the main ligament of the neck. It can also cause arthritis in the vertebral joints of the horse.

Thus, it damages the horse both physically as well as mentally and is the cruelest form of dressage training given to the horse.

Serious Medical Injuries Caused Due to Dressage

Horse dressage can cause long-term injuries that can harm your horses and leave them anxious and inefficient as well.

Let’s take a look at various medical injuries caused to the horses due to dressage.

  1. Proximal Suspensory Desmitis (PSD): This disease is caused due to the accumulation of repetitive sprains to the horse’s ligament. The repeated injuries cause a mild lameness in the hind limbs of the horses. It can cause overall inefficiency in the system of the horse and loss of performance.

            PSD is an acute injury and may last for an extended period or lead to permanent lameness.

  1. Distal interphalangeal joint (DIPJ) Problems: Foot pain is usually caused in this joint. It is a common problem in many horses who go through vigorous training techniques.

If timely treatment is not given to the horses, this can cause inflammation and lameness in this area and affect the horses’ health. If it gets serious, it can lead to arthritis too.

  1. Thoracolumbar and sacroiliac pain: This pain is often encountered in dressage horses. It can cause trouble for the horses by reducing their overall physical health and performance, unwillingness and resistance to perform movements, or becoming irritated and aggressive.

These problems can plague your horse’s health and reduce their health, be it mental or physical, and damage their body severely and permanently.

So, now the question arises: Is it actually a good sport for the horses? Keep reading to know more.

Horse cruelty in sport horses

According to PETA, the horseracing industry is a cruel one that involves horses in various risks. Every year, around 700 to 800 racehorses are injured severely, and some lose their lives.

Additionally, around ten horses died every week at the American racetracks in 2018 itself, according to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database.

Other than physical abuse, many horse owners also inject their horses with illegal drugs and steroids. As astonishing as it sounds, horses are injected with harmful pain-masking medicines that can damage the horse’s body and the nervous system.

A research study carried out by the Colorado State University found that out of 1,348 horses sent to the slaughterhouse, 58 were racehorses. Some meat buyers were paying $200 for ex-racehorses to butcher.

Benefits of Dressage to Horses

Every coin has two sides. Similarly, while dressage is considered a cruel sport, it can also benefit your horse if it is done correctly, and your horse is adequately and ethically trained.

Let’s see the various benefits of the dressage technique.

  1. Better coordination

Dressage can help in improving your horse’s coordination. With various movements and levels, it can create self-awareness in the horse and also proper coordination. It helps them work and focus on multiple parts of their bodies and how to utilize them efficiently.

Dressage can not only help the horse to coordinate his body parts, but also coordinate with you quickly and effectively.

  1. Increased strength

If the dressage practice is done correctly and in a moderate amount, it can increase the strength of your horse’s body. It is a form of exercise that can help relax their muscles and reduce weariness and fatigue.

It can help in articulating the joints and also increase blood circulation in their body and energize them.

  1. Increased suppleness and balance

Dressage training involves techniques that can help your horse to improve its balance. The proper postures and alignment of the body can provide him with flexibility and suppleness. As the muscles easily contract and relax, it gets easier for the horses to bend without pressurizing their spine or neck too much.

Additionally, it can also improve the balance of a horse through training and repetition to endure various positions.

  1. Increased fitness

Along with increased blood circulation and energy, dressage techniques can keep your horse fit too. It can improve the horse’s endurance and strength and keep his bones and muscles strong and flexible.

As mentioned above, it can increase your horse’s balance and strength and improve its overall fitness.

  1. Focussed and more confident

If your training techniques are unique and fun, there is no way that your horse will not be focussed and looking forward to the training sessions. He will also be more focussed and less lazy and dull.

Make sure you give him a loving pat on the back to encourage him more and make him confident!

Proper Training Techniques

All the above benefits are only applicable if you have a well-planned training technique that is made for your horse only.

Before you plan the routine, keep in mind the following points.

  • A varied routine plan

Dressage can cause harm to the horses if the routines are too repetitive and stressful. This is because your horse often gets bored with the same routine every other day. It can also lead to less enthusiasm and energy in your horse, along with violent behavior.

  • A properly planned training structure

Imagine, if you’re used to doing only ten push-ups and suddenly, you’re expected to, or in a worse case, forced to do 100 push-ups, how horrible is it going to be?

Think in the same way for your horse. They might have more stamina than humans, but they are still normal creatures like us and do not have any superpowers.

In this case, it is required to structure your training into three phases: the warm-up phase followed by a training phase and, finally, a cool-down stage.

  1. Warm-up phase

The warm-up phase can help your horse in loosening his body and getting ready for the actual training. It can also help in elevating his energy levels and motivating him to do better.

It can also help you in recognizing the limitations and strengths of your horse. You can evaluate its performance and decide how to continue with it and which areas to focus on and work more upon.

  1. Training phase

Before beginning hardcore training, make sure you work on the basics more. You should focus more on the horse’s approach to the movements than on what it can or cannot do.

It is also essential to understand the limitations of your horse. If you can feel the pain of your horse, try to slow it down a little. It is one thing to be dedicated to, but it is another to ignore your horse’s needs and emotions entirely.

Try to have a balance between being gentle and being strict. Extremes of anything can be harmful to you as well as your horse.

  1. Cool-down phase

Cool-down is the last and the final phase of dressage training. It is crucial in any type of training technique.

It can help reduce muscle stiffness and soreness. It can also prevent major injuries. You can help your horse by letting him rest his muscles with a few easy and relaxing exercises.

Additionally, a cool-down session can help ease the blood-circulation and let your horse’s heart rate return to normal. If it is not done effectively and safely, it can cause heart-related problems and muscular stiffness in your horse’s body and damage his health.

Should Dressage be accepted as an Olympic sport?

Now, there are a lot of debates going around on the topic if this sport should still be considered an Olympic sport. We believe that as long as the training techniques and equipment are safe and horse-friendly, they can become a good sport for horse riders and horses.

There are various safe alternatives the horse riders can take to ensure proper comfort and security for their horses. You should also know that horses have their own Olympic psychologists that can help them as well.

Conclusion

You may be thinking that you are not the type of person who would enjoy dressage, but it is all a matter of perspective. To some people this hobby can feel like an art form with complicated maneuvers and elegant skills; for others it might seem cruel treatment of animals.

The truth is that you can train horses humanely. The top-performing dressage horses are also loved and treated well by their trainers and owners. There really isn’t any one right way to motivate your horse to become good at dressage, but there are wrong ways to train horses, and you want to avoid those at all costs-what matters most is how much care they get from their rider while training them!

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