Trudi Howley: "Heels Down or In?"

Fri, 03/01/2024 - 07:37
For the love of horses :: Photo © Astrid Appels

Text by Trudi Howley - An invitation for a broader perspective

A powerful sense of discomfort has pervaded the global dressage community at this moment in time. Conversations are happening, complaints have been made, and some people are frustratedly attacking those that are choosing to share their viewpoints on social media. Inga Wolframm PhD, Professor of Sustainable Equestrianism, at the University of Applied Sciences Van Hall Larenstein, notes in a paper Changing Hearts and Minds in The Equestrian World One Behaviour at a Time, “A combination of changing attitudes towards animal welfare, increasing (bio)ethical awareness, advances in communication technologies, and the pervasiveness of social media all contribute towards a shift in society’s view of equestrian activities. Practices that were once considered acceptable are now being questioned by individuals and organisations with no direct links to equestrianism."


Recently publicised accusations against international dressage rider Cesar Parra, captured on video, in Palm Beach County, Florida, training horses using abhorrent training methods has resulted in an investigation into allegations of animal abuse. After these videos that surfaced at the beginning of February 2024, the website confirmed that dressage athlete Cesar Parra has been immediately provisionally suspended while the FEI investigates the disturbing (aforementioned) videos in relation to his training techniques that have recently emerged. Lauren Sammis, a two time US team medalist who won team gold and individual silver at the Pan Am games, watched the videos on Facebook and stated, “ I could not have imagined things were to that extreme.” In addition, the German Oldenburg and Westphalian breed societies have temporarily suspended Cesar Parra as the horses in the videos were registered with these organisations.

On the heels of those allegations of abuse, there has also been an investigation into two other historic allegations that pre-date the actions against Parra. Canadian Olympian Evi Strasser and her daughter Tanya Strasser-Shostak received a temporary suspension by Equestrian Canada.. Alleged training abuses at Helgstrand Dressage are also being revisited. Isabell Werth, a German Dressage Olympic rider, who has won more medals than any other equestrian, posted a balanced, supportive statement on Instagram asserting that Danish Olympian Andreas Helgstrand, has responsibility for his former employees if alleged abuses occurred at Helgstrand Dressage. She has also noted, “Mistakes in riding however should and must be discussed - this is the core of my sport and the prerequisite for the improvement of the horse and rider. But please, it has to be factual, objective and fair.”

A More Pervasive Problem in Dressage?

Having reached the international stage, these issues are naturally high profile. An openness to discussing these complaints generally opens up much broader topics, which inevitably includes the general publics’ positive and negative perceptions around equestrian sports. As the investigations progress and the facts are determined we will hopefully learn if these are in fact isolated incidents of animal welfare abuses, accusations without merit, or a more pervasive problem in dressage?

As we look forward to this Olympic year, and beyond, we feel in awe and reverence for our equine friends. It is amazing what they will do for us when we create a bond with them. Equine veterinarian John S Mitchel DVM, and former president of the American Association of the Equine Practitioners (AAEP), stated that, “Humankind has a responsibility to take care of them”. At the same time we need to be constantly asking ourselves to determine when and if we are demanding more from our equine athletes than they can physically or mentally capable of. We must explore each case individually to determine what constitutes overdriving, overworking and abuse?

An obvious place to begin is the law. For example, Cesar Parra’s Florida farm is subject in the USA to the 2023 Florida State Statute 828.12, as follows:

Cruelty to animals.—

  • (1) A person who unnecessarily overloads, overdrives, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance or shelter, or unnecessarily mutilates, or kills any animal, or causes the same to be done, or carries in or upon any vehicle, or otherwise, any animal in a cruel or inhumane manner, commits animal cruelty, a misdemeanour of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082...
  • (2) A person who intentionally commits an act to any animal, or a person who owns or has the custody or control of any animal and fails to act, which results in the cruel death, or excessive or repeated infliction of unnecessary pain or suffering, or causes the same to be done, commits aggravated animal cruelty, a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082...

Discussions of ethics and public opinion are also relevant to the issue of abuse. The German arm of the People for the Ethical Treatment Animals (PETA) issued an open letter to the International Olympic Committee seeking a ban on all equestrian activities at the Olympic Games, after three incidents of mistreatment of horses at the Tokyo Olympics. Those involved with equestrian sports should familiarise themselves with social license to operate (SLO) is an important term for those involved in equestrian sports to understand. On the website of it states:

When an activity does have society's approval or acceptance, it is said to have a 'social licence to operate' (SLO). The equestrian world needs to maintain and strengthen its social licence for it to have a future. This means that the welfare of the horse must be put first AND be seen to be put first, all of the time, and it is the responsibility of everyone who is involved with horses to demonstrate this

Learn from Mistakes

Mistakes will be made. However, if all those involved in equestrian sport and leisure activities are able to learn from these mistakes and demonstrate that they are always striving to do right by their horses, society at large is more likely to trust that equine welfare is genuinely prioritised while equestrianism's social license will be maintained. Hilda Gurney, an International and National Dressage Judge, Olympian, and US Dressage Hall of Fame inductee, now 80 years old and still riding, says that “Cruelty cannot be tolerated. I have given yellow cards and reported riders to show management”. It is important to acknowledge that the shows are strictly monitored and the current welfare situations are stemming from training practices at home stables.

In light of this, we may earnestly ask, “What changes do we collectively need to make? Are we willing to have a conversation about the broader perspectives?” Failure to do so may make the sport of dressage vulnerable, with a trickle-down effect from the Olympic level to the rural chapters. As we consistently put the welfare of horses at the forefront of reported complaints, each person involved in the equestrian world must take responsibility for their own growth and education on this subject. After all we can never expect perfection in the sport of dressage, though striving for excellence is part of the joy and challenge of any partnership between horse and rider. Collectively we also need to promote and protect the many positives benefits to well-being of different types of horse-human interactions and endeavours. Allan J. Hamilton MD, in his book Zen Mind, Zen Horse (2011) reflects, “Effective horse training poses an implicit challenge: it does not require us to demonstrate ingenuity, but it demands we express integrity-especially to ourselves…Horses do not see us as our collective stories but simply as we are standing in front of them”.

Freedom from Fear and Distress

We start with the premise that most riders seem want to improve their relationships with horses. A conversation that supports equestrian voices needs to occur, one that honours the hard work, expertise, and dedication of all those who have historically and still make a living working in the equine industry. Experts who have devoted their lives to working with horses will likely agree with the wording of the Animal Welfare Act of Great Britain that within the framework of freedoms, all animals deserve “Freedom from Fear and Distress”. The current guidelines governing horse shows are very strict about humane riding and they have many protective regulations in place. For example, the governing bodies of all equestrian sports have made rules around bleeding from minor injuries sustained by horses during competitions and bloody spur marks, sustained during competitions are no longer tolerated. Dressage is a very difficult sport and many riders have had to deal with challenging moments with horses. These horses are very powerful and as prey animals their instincts are naturally to flee from anything they feel is a danger to them and normal safety corrections may appear harsh from people unfamiliar with horse-handling.

Current legal and ethical issues may need to be further defined by both expert opinion, testimony, or even revision of old training practices that may be outdated. This might include a whole myriad of ideas, such as the French mandate for the ban on draw reins or other artificial aids. In the Ethical framework for the use of horses in competitive sport (2021), Madeline Campbell discussed the importance of promoting normal horse behaviour, such as daily movement. Accordingly, the French Assembly for the welfare of horses at the Tokyo Olympics has mandate 46 recommendations and this might include such things as the compulsory provision of some turnout spots at all horse events. We can learn to be increasingly responsible for the welfare of all horses in our communities. Ultimately, the dressage community must be progressive enough to invite improved future autonomous management. Otherwise, they risk having governmental bodies with little knowledge of a specific sport horse industry designated their future actions.

Stop It in the Barn

Abuses and the punishment of abuses must also be clearly defined. We need to understand what is cruelty and abuse, where the lines are and support community members speaking out without fear or retaliation or exclusion as social pariahs. Whether intentional or accidental cruelty to an equine it is still cruelty. Both types of cruelty need to be addressed appropriately; for example, accidental situations may require education and forgiveness. Animal welfare organisations must determine if an alleged perpetrator is open to modifying their abuse actions or has exhibited chronic pathological behaviour. Equestrian organisations likely need to further educate the public and their local chapter members on their broader animal welfare by- laws, amend those that require clearer definition, and suggest mechanisms for more easily report infractions that occur on private property. The must also clarify whether reports must be made to local law enforcement, animal care and control departments, or local or national organisations.

The US Safe Sport program has successfully addressed abuses inflicted upon people. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) is currently seeking implemented proposed rule changes regarding abuses that occur on private premises. The USEF states that if passed, these changes would allow USEF to further protect our equine partners and pursue disciplinary action for reported and documented cases of abuse outside of competition environments. Charlotte Robinson DVM, animal cruelty investigations instructor for Code 3 & Associates, believes that “Horses should come through their daily training with more relaxation and less confusion. We will never get rid of cruelty if we don’t stop it in the barn. We have to say enough is enough”.

Heels Down or In?

In this era of rapid information dissemination via the use of personal communication and social media, it is important that we maintain good manners and a pleasant attitude as we navigate the intensity around these concerns. As Travis & Aronson (2015) stated, “An unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness”. We also need to be wary and open- minded about possible manipulations, and editing of photographic or video images. For example, if may only be possible to photograph a horse representing a perceived borderline case of malnourishment, by employing specific camera angles and lighting. Having participated in many photo shoots for Dressage Today this author can attest to the normal photographic accumulation of outtakes that may catch any rider at a bad moment, whether through a too-quick riding correction or from mechanical actions of the camera.

There exists an opportunity right now to collectively have these important conversations and to advocate for foreseeable changes in our sport. This means we need to stretch our heels down and find a new balance. Alternatively, we can dig our heels in, maintain the status quo and defend long-established ways of doing things. Neither choice is comfortable so as individuals, communities, groups and governing bodies are invited to accustom themselves to being uncomfortable, at least temporarily. There are long-standing, systemic problems in the dressage community but are too afraid to speak out on. Addressing these issues will support the integrity of everyone involved.

Thoughtful Team Approach

Embracing this approach will prevent non-equestrians from determining the realities of how we choose to advocate for the welfare of the amazing horses that give us so much. We can all decide to be responsible for our personal growth by committing to be better listeners, and bravely sharing our voices as we define our response to these issues. Charles de Kunffy, Master Horseman and Judge, who has written respectfully and thoughtfully about the classical tradition of dressage, stated in his 1992 book The Athletic Development of the Dressage Horse, “… discomfort, pain and injury can be, and should be, avoided in an equine-human partnership. Knowledge of how to create the physiological circumstances under which motion in unity can prosper, be uninjurous and a source of pleasure is the task of scholarly equitation that produces the art of riding”. This can be accomplished by means of a thoughtful team approach, including knowledgable, skilled and compassionate trainers.

Some level of vision and commitment to creating change is needed by everyone in the dressage community: riders, owners, grooms, farm managers, trainers, veterinarians, farriers, show organisers, governing bodies, breeders and judges. This means identifying the focused actions we can take, with the right supports in place, in order to continuously maintain and improve the equine industry, regardless of whether current or future accusations are upheld or people are exonerated. The invitation to engage in productive conversation and action must be done with our hearts open to the well-being of our beloved horses. Dr. Jay Merriam, Founding Chair of the AAEP’s Equine Welfare Committee, states that “Education is key in a big picture sense as animals don’t have a choice”. In order to sustain positive behaviour changes in equestrian communities, Inga Wolframm PhD has highlighted the need for supportive networks, opportunities, planning, and interventions to support the adoption of improved and more welfare- oriented behaviours.

by Trudi Howley

Trudi Howley is a lifelong equestrian, has been an Oldenburg breeder, and a USDF silver medalist. Trudi is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Nationally Board Certified, who specialises in trauma resolution, solution-focused elite performance, and wellness