What is Ethical?

What is Ethical?

To be ethical means that you are doing what is morally right. But the ‘right’ way to interact with our horses is open to personal and fashionable  interpretation.

Within the huge range of what ‘might’ be deemed acceptable my view is still far from ‘super ethical’.   At this point on my journey, I think that in principal, if the horse is comfortable, and the rider is considerate, then it’s probably okay to ride, I even like to think that it might be possible to have a relationship with a horse whereby the horse likes being ridden! But lets consider a couple of examples of views from one end of the scale.

“all sentient beings, have a basic right not to be treated as the property of others”   The Abolitionist approach to animal rights.

“…the horse is not designed to be ridden.  The horse should not be ridden at the cost of their health and well being”.  Academia Liberti

The views of both the Abolitionists and the Liberty trainers may seem extreme to the vast majority of horse enthusiasts,  however if we are to count ourselves as ‘horse lovers and carers’ as opposed to ‘horse users and keepers’, there are elements of their beliefs that must surely be given due consideration. Personally, I have huge respect for these views  (see their websites) and admire these people who live by their super high values.

For millennia we have practiced speciesism,  presuming our superior intelligence to animals and our right to dominate and exploit them because of their inferiority.  But researchers from all over the world are making remarkable discoveries about animal intelligence.  Just one example is  from the University of Adelaide, where researchers argue that humans really aren’t much smarter than other creatures — and that some animals may actually be brighter than we are, in fact Dr. Arthur Saniotis, a visiting research fellow with the university’s School of Medical Sciences, says  “science tells us that animals can have cognitive faculties that are superior to human beingsand Professor Henneberg (also from that faculty) says that “The fact that they may not understand us, while we do not understand them, does not mean our ‘intelligences’ are at different levels, they are just of different kinds. When a foreigner tries to communicate with us using an imperfect, broken, version of our language, our impression is that they are not very intelligent. But the reality is quite different”  

Now… it is also widely recognized that, just like us, animals feel pain.  But horses are stoic creatures, they have to be, if they acted like footballers every time they got a knock, then they would historically have been eaten!  Then there is the concept of animals feeling emotions, however controversial this may be, any empathetic person will tell you that animals most definitely do have feelings, we recognize in our horses emotions such as excitement, depression, contentment, and anger… to name but a few.

Given that horses are intelligent, sentient beings, what right do we have to use them, or to use force to make them perform for our entertainment?  

We should question every part of our training and ‘use’ of horses, and we should allow horses to live as closely to their natural condition as it is possible in this crowded world.  At this point on my journey, I am not suggesting that we all stop riding horses, and  I want to believe that there is a way to interact with horses in a respectful and mutually beneficial way.

But how would you like it?  If we accept that horses can feel, just like we can, then all we have to do is imagine ourselves in their place. How would you like to be kept in your bedroom (no matter how comfortable your bed is, or how smart your wardrobe is) 23 hours a day? and how stiff and unfit would you feel if the other hour you were made to work hard in the gym? What would work better for you, Pilates and Yoga or having straps and draw reins to make you stay in ‘the right shape’?  Would you be happier running towards pleasure, or away from pain?  If  someone insisted you had a piece of metal in your mouth, and you opened your mouth because of some discomfort, would you want someone to listen to you, and look to remove the discomfort for you, or would you want a crank cavesson, or tightened flash to stop you showing your pain? And where does this pain originate?  Generally from ignorance on our part.

As long as horses are part of an ‘industry’ they will be open to abuse.  Industry is all about money, there is no room for sentiment in business.  But horses need time and understanding, and as long as we accept that horses are part of any industry, they will be bred in huge numbers, ridden before they are mature, forced to perform, broken down, and then discarded.   So it is paramount that the governing bodies of ALL equestrian sports have welfare, and the constant improvement and implementation of welfare at the very top of their agenda.  At the present time, it is my belief that most of them just give lip service to welfare, they are still governed by the need to make money, please sponsors, and make the sports more spectacular! But sports are the theatre of horsemanship, what the elite show, the masses will believe is right, and will follow… sports governing bodies have a huge responsibility for equine well-being.

The best horse people listen to their horses, and they feel their pain.  Oh my dear God, I am SO far from getting this right! I am human, but I hope that I am learning from my mistakes, I hope that the horses forgive me and continue to teach me, and I pray that humankind wakes up, and we become kindhumans.






5 responses »

  1. Passionately written and very poignant piece. As a society we must ask ourselves these questions and as equine owners and professionals we have a duty to bring these issues to the forefront. In terms of the scale of ethicality, with abolitionist and liberty trainers at the 0 end of the scale, it enables us to view our beliefs as individuals and place it within a framework or context.
    I have wrestled with many of these questions myself, but sometimes it raises more questions than answers. Mindsets are slowly changing and there are many trainers and horse professionals that a teaching ‘a kinder way’, but the industry, as you so rightly stated, will always be open to abuse. Everything from overbreeding, over population, decreasing land to use, unwanted horses, the slaughter issue, to name a very few. It makes the utopian view of horses living a natural herd life with no interference from us a very hard thing to envisage as an option for all. That does not detract from the fact that we have a responsibility to show a gentler and alternative way of training and managing horses. Old habits are hard to break and it does take some deep soul searching and questioning to decide where you sit on the fence on these issues.
    The difficulty as a trainer or professional trying to advocate some of these principals, is that you cannot force people to examine it until they are ready and open. Otherwise resistance is the result. There is a poignant quote from the ‘Indianapolis Horse Examiner’, which states.
    ‘Our work is not to drag the world kicking and screaming into a new awareness. Our job is to simply do our work sacredly and silently, which will emanate light wherever you are and those with ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ will respond.’
    There is some value to this statement, as we know how hard it is to teach people who simply do not want to listen.
    Never the less, our efforts do not go unnoticed and slowly, surely there is a global shift in the right direction. Some of the vile practises of rolkur, excessive medication, de nerving, injecting and many more practises are very much in the limelight and are gradually changing perceptions. It may be small beginnings, but morality and ethicality are now on the international agenda as never before. And that gives me hope that change will come, albeit slowly.

  2. Your posts on ‘what is ethical’ resonate deeply with the content of an equestrian guide I recently penned and published due to my disillusionment at the horse industry; in particular the body that boasts its commitment to absolute horse welfare in the UK. Unfortunately, as you confirmed Milly, the ‘right’ way to interact with our horses IS open to personal and fashionable interpretation. Horse owners, riders and trainers are only as ethical as their beliefs and learning processes allow. Many current riding and training methods that are now scientifically proven as archaic and barbaric, continue to be passed down the ranks at the clear detriment to the horse. Pain and discomfort that manifest as ‘evasions’ are regularly misinterpreted as ‘disobedience’, resulting in punishment and re-training rather than the offering of support and investigation. I’ve been a BHS riding coach for many years, constantly battling to help all horse handlers find a better way, turning to the written word after years of fighting a losing battle against the staid traditionalists.
    Readers of my guide ‘Horse Riding Choose Your Weapons’ are already on our wavelength and have been searching for a better way. I am hopeful that the sceptics, the unaware and those who appear to turn a blind eye, will begin to hear the voice of the horse in the not too distant future.
    Giving ‘lip service’ regarding horse welfare is so true. I passed a copy of my guide to the largest Horse Welfare Charity in the UK, of which I am a member. The main concern was the title – considered too violent for its readers and it would not have shelf appeal! The sound and valid content in helping equestrians recognise pain and discomfort was of no interest. The feedback from readers who have purchased my book elsewhere is extremely positive; the title intrigued them so much they felt compelled to buy it. I, like you Milly, strongly believe that money is the main factor here. It is obviously far more important than admitting that the horse is abused daily by bits, tight nosebands, ill-fitting saddles, gadgets, bad riding…….! I’m not so naïve as to think I can convert everyone, and, despite the horse not being created for our amusement, I certainly wouldn’t preach against him being ridden. Very simple actions such as merely removing a flash noseband, the bit, an ill-fitting saddle, simple checks, would alleviate much of his pain, discomfort, anxiety, fear.
    As a Reiki Master Teacher and Animal Communicator, I strongly believe that our horses feel emotions and pain just like we do – in fact they take on board all our emotions – both negative and positive. Horses are a mirror image of the person they share their lives with.
    To quote a paragraph from my book “for all the cynics out there, open mindedness sets you free from the clutches of archaic, systematic training systems, that continue to brainwash equestrians at the expense of the wellbeing and true potential of both you and the horse. As soon as you are humble enough to question, you will begin to see a world full of possibilities, not limitations.”

    • Thank you Avis, your response is much appreciated. I have put your book on my wishlist at Amazon (at the moment I have 4 books on the go, and the wishlist is rather long!). I am uplifted every-time I come across another like minded soul (and we have so many things in common that I would like to talk to you further), and I believe that their is a strong movement towards an enlightened approach to horses and horse training.

  3. Dear Ms. Shand,
    What an enlightening and beautifully written piece. Of all the information I have come across, your writing touches my heart directly.

    I wanted to share a little of my own journey to find a better way. As a Brit living in Virginia — one who had not ridden horses for almost 40 years, I returned to Englsh riding at age 59, After one year I purchased an OTTB, yet another sweet heart that had a stifle injury from being forced, too early, to run in races. I have now owned Captain Jack for three years and I love him dearly. About one year ago, I began to feel that even with my gentle riding and all efforts to be kind, I could no longer justify being on his back. This has lead me to search for other ways in which I can both interact with my companion and keep him fit. I discussed this with my trainer who works in the hunter-jumper disciplines. At first (like most), she thought my requests odd, but, even though a competitor herself, offered to go along with my desire to find another route. I contacted an equine therapist (in Wisconsin), a German lady who is very skilled at helping with issues such as stifle injuries, I contacted a friend in Denmark, who follows Alexander Nevzorov’s school, and also recommends Klaus Hempfling’s coaching for horse and rider. (Both gentlemen have excellent sites). However, with all this, I found I was better making my own decisions and proceeding at my own pace. I set up some fitness and play sessions — that is what I call them, ‘fitness and play’ — with my young OTTB (he’s 8) and we have had surprizing results to date. I have only been holding these sessions for a few months, but I have seen a change in his fluidity and way of going, more relaxation, more humor and yes — he will tell me when he likes or does not like something and when he has had enough for the day. I stopped using a bit and am working with a side-pull bridle on the odd occasion when I ride, quietly, slowly and gently, but mostly I do groundwork with him. He seems to accept and enjoy quiet rides as long as they are not ‘training’ and circling. I discovered that he has discomfort during canter (when under saddle), but can enjoy it when at liberty, so I only work at walk and trot, as he enjoys going forward on straight lines, mostly. In short, I threw away all that I had learned and began to LISTEN to my horse. When he sees me now, even from the end of the pastures, he comes over immediately and wants to come out and enjoy time with me. I do not give him treats during any of the fitness work. After cooling, grooming and a little grazing, when I take him back into the barn, I will offer some natural fruit and veg in his feed bin. He is otherwise at pasture and free for 18 hours per day. I began doing waterhole rituals (Carolyn Resnick) with him and created my own little games, where I move my chair around to different positions and he will follow me (between grazing). He always wants to be close to me now — there is no ‘fear and pain’ associated with our friendship. I think it’s very important to clarify that. So, yes, there are many suggestions by many trainers, but I could not find specific information on what exactly I could do. Therefore, I created my own plan, which I give, below. Naturally, this is constantly changing and improving but basically, this is what I do with Captain Jack, the young-retired racehorse, who didn’t really want to run and was sent off the track. He has become my heart and soul, and I wanted to share the new path I am on with him.

    Fitness & Play Sessions: I hope other readers will begin to look at things differently and — at least — include some ‘FPS’ in their routines. There is scientific evidence of injury to their backs and mouths, among other injuries and painful experiences. Thermographic images show this clearly. Therefore, there is no excuse to cause this pain any more, no matter what those who refuse to accept this knowledge, may say.

    – Consider riding for only 15 minutes — that is the maximum time you can ride without hurting your horse’s back and causing numbness due to constricted blood flow.
    – Consider riding with a side-pull bridle, a Dr. Cook’s bitless or at least a hackamore, but learn how to use it properly and ride with even lighter hands.
    – Ride bareback (if you can) for short periods only, or with a bareback pad. If, like me, you are not a bareback rider, then ride with a fleece girth and no longer than 15 minutes.
    – Fitness & Play:
    – Walk and trot your horse in-hand (a gently held lead rope is all right) in the arena and construct patterns to keep things interesting, figure eights, very large circles and serpentines.
    – Once your horse accepts that you are ‘exercising beside him’, you can trot a little faster, but keep the pace calm and orderly. If you are working in the arena, slow to walk at the short corners (so you and your horse can slow your breathing); when you are rested a little, return to trot. Ensure your horse keeps pace with you.
    – Set up interesting obstacle courses that both you and your horse can do together — cavalletti poles (on the ground) and slightly raised (9 inches or so), whatever is suited to you and your horse. You can arrange the poles in semi circles and straight arrangements, with different pacing for walk and trot.
    – Change the arrangements to keep things interesting and set up different obstacles at the other end of the arena or small paddock.
    – Practice removing the lead line (as long as you are in a safe, enclosed area). Ideally, one other person should be with you on the ground. You can use a longe whip (for direction only) or just a crop, or no crop, if your horse follows you well.
    – Currently, I am still working Jack on the lead line, but I hold it very loosely so that he has a free head.
    – Always make sure your horse is calm and going steadily with you. If he appears to be distracted or a little nervous, just stop the session, talk to him quietly and lead him back out to hand graze or to his pasture.
    – On some days, you horse might not want to do these exercises, or he may do them for ten minutes and then let you know he’s had enough. That’s all right.
    – Try to set a goal of 20 minutes for each session.
    – You must have a clear idea of what you are going to do and have the appropriate course set up. If you want around aimlessly, the horse will become bored.
    – Give him plenty of praise for his good job but speak with him respectfully and use strokes, not hard pats, when he does well.

    It’s all about respecting your equine companion.

    If you want to consider what the horse feels like, put a saddle on your back, or strap bags of sugar that weigh one tenth (or more in some cases) of your weight.
    Thus: I weigh 118 lbs. (so let’s say 120).
    This represents one-tenth of my horse’s weight (he’s 1200 lbs).
    I placed sugar bags, weighing one tenth of my weight on my back just to see how it felt. (My partner is a physician, so he suggested the exercise). The sugar bags therefore weighed 12 lbs. I can tell you that I could not manage that weight, plus the respective weight of tack, and move around much. It would certainly injure my back. Consider the horse’s skeletal frame: He is not designed to carry weight on his back. No matter what anyone will tell you — the horse’s back is not designed to carry such weight.

    As for the bit, it restricts respiration, pushes the tongue back and most likely feels as though it is choking a horse. Think of how you feel when your mouth is full of dental instruments — and you don’t have to run or go over jumps during a dental session.

    We have too long punished horses. We need to find gentler methods. Most of us cannot ride bareback with no reins, but we should find alternate ways to exercise our horses, play with them, and enjoy sharing life with these sentient, beautiful beings, without torturing them.

    My ex-racehorse has strap marks across his tongue, from straps or harsh bits, and tattoos on his lip, of course. He will never know such things again. It is taking time to heal all these psychological and physical wounds, but we are making great progress and his response to truly compassionate care has been amazing.

    Thank you, again, for your written word and I hope many will read it. I am constantly devising new ways to play and keep us both fit, and I can tell you it’s much harder work for the human — that’s something to think about as well. Are you really sharing the load with your horse?

    Many blessings,


    • Thank you so much for your kind words Nuala. It fills me with happiness when my path crosses with a like minded soul. Captain Jack is fortunate to have found you, I pray that more and more people will start to listen to their horses. I have read with great interest how you interact together now, I will read it again and try FPS with my own horses. Wishing you all the best, Milly. PS I have read a little about your book ‘The Woods of Wicomico’ it sounds so lovely, I have just ordered a copy.

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