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Why Ethical Training?

Lets break down stigmas and barriers to understand resistance towards better training practices.

Ethical training has recently become a catch phrase used by equine professionals around the globe to describe their training practices (myself included!). But what encompasses ethical training practices and how is it all different from traditional training? To me, ethical training practices consider all aspects of equine welfare and husbandry and put the needs of each individual horse before ego. It means treating the horse as an equal and not a servant, it means being a friend before being a competitor.

Something that I never understood is that these things should seem like they should be a common understanding when working with horses, but they haven't been. This is blaringly obvious when we see the level of backlash towards more ethical practices and advocating for more regulation within horse sports. This backlash ranges from defending abusive practices to turning a blind eye simply because someone has a big name in the industry. But when we take all biases out of the equation, there is something that still remains, and that is the obvious maltreatment of horses still in this industry in 2024. Why?

Like many, I've honestly grown tired of shouting into what feels like a void where no matter how much noise you try to make, all you hear is silence. It becomes exhausting saying the same things over and over and over to only have a few listen if any. When ultimately at the end of the day the forces that be stand tall with there seemingly unwavering support. There are so many reasons why people would be hesitant to break away from what they know. There could be an unwillingness to admit their faults, fear of what they don't know, or just a mentality of "its been done this way for so long, how can it be wrong?". People are only human and have to be willing to do the work to make those changes or see things from a different lens and if that willingness to be open to new information isn't there, then on an individual level that change is not going to happen.

These are internal struggles that each individual may face, but then there are much bigger things that hold this all in place. Like I said before... the forces that be. Those at the top who seem untouchable because lets face it, at the end of the day most people still love a good caste system and treating those at the top as idols or gods. Beings who cannot possibly be at fault or do wrong because of the pedestal that society has created for them. A subliminal message that makes many dream of being these people while also knowing deep down that that could never be. They sell you a product. And they treat the horses as such. If you've been following me then you may see me go off and rant about how there's a big elephant in the room when we talk about equine welfare and the destructive nature of horse sports so you may know what I'm about to say, if not then here it is. Capitalism plays a huge role in halting progress as a whole when it comes to the wellbeing of horses being put as priority in industry standards.

If talking about things beyond horses is something that you don't like then I will give you a fair warning now to not continue reading, it is common practice in my discussions as these are the much bigger and harder conversations that need to be had if we want to truly move forward as a collective. Without acknowledgement there cannot be change. The driving force behind Capitalism is a competitive market, pushing new product for consumers to purchase in hopes that they prefer your product over another. But in this country, it has all taken a turn for the worst. It has pushed our industry overseas as unchecked companies go for increasing profit margins in cheap labor to provide cheap products that they can still make millions(billions) from. Mass production has depleted resources and put the welfare of our environment at risk. Quantity over quality and making more and more money has been the motto.

And unfortunately the same rings true for the horse industry. Produce more, better, flashier, faster. When you look at the broad spectrum of what is done in our industry this is our common denominator when we see issues with animal welfare (before people come at me yes I know there are people out there who don't fall into this trap). We have horses being started at 18 months old so that they can be put to work sooner, be shown sooner and raced sooner because it is expensive to feed them for a few more years and they don't want to spend more money on them. We have young horse classes where people are showing 3 year olds and when you understand the process of development and growth... thats scary. Capitalism has pushed everything in our lives to be so fast paced that there is now impatience in developing a good riding horse. It used to be common knowledge and practice to start horses a little later, to give them time to develop and grow so that they are physically and mentally in a better space. But they have become a product that needs to be pushed and turned over. There are breeding farms with well over 100 head of horses who breed excessively and there are less and less small reputable breeders who do the research and do right by their horses in how they raise and develop them.

But why? What I mentioned earlier brings us to the other side of the fence. It is expensive to breed, upkeep and start a horse in training. Lets say that there is a small responsible breeder who only produces 4 foals per year. They sell two as yearlings to well educated owners or professionals who will continue to develop this young horse properly. The other two they keep for 4 years. For discussion sake, lets say that the total cost per foal in quality hay, feed, deworming, daily handling and eventually training, pasture space/maintenance, educated staff, care, farrier, the occasional body worker etc is around 10k/year (including the care of the mare who foaled each horse as well). If said breeder were to keep each horse until they were 4 years old, how much would they have to sell that horse to cover cost? And how many people are either willing or capable of purchasing a young horse at that price? Doing things ethically costs more money in today's world and unfortunately many people's salaries have not kept up with the cost of living and expenses which pushes the marked to produce faster cheaper animals as well (also plays a role in our dilemma with auctions and slaughter bound horses but that is a conversation for another day).

Breeding for fashion over function to produce something that is trendy in horses adds another layer to all of this. We are sold this false idea that what is happening at the top of our sport is what is desirable. That those winning in the show rings at the upper levels are the best of the best and they ride the best of the best. But we see horses with hyper mobile movement, horses with extreme conformational defaults etc. They break down faster. Everything is happening faster and faster and all of this put together may seem like a pretty package to the untrained eye but it is so destructive. It reminds me of fast fashion (I would know I went to fashion school ;)). When you peel back the curtain to see what goes on behind the scenes to produce your $15 cheap knockoff of a trend shirt you would be horrified. There's nothing ethical about it, people suffer, the environment suffers, the quality is trash... but hey Forever21 was able to get cute stuff out fast and sell it to the masses!

Horses are living, breathing sentient beings that have been thrown into this mess of a mentality and we are now getting to the point where we cannot unsee what is wrong with what we are doing and have done to get here. We are suffering the consequences of our own doing. If we truly want to make a change as an industry we have to stop treating them like product. By we I mean those at the top that set our rules and regulations as well as those who choose to blindly follow and justify it all. We know and see what needs to change on a personal level and it is happening! I know earlier I stated that it feels loke words often fall on deaf ears, but there are more and more people willing to be more educated in fair training and treatment of our horses and it is a beautiful thing to see! Until there is a change from the top of our sport, we will still see mistreatment and abusive practices and in turn they will continue to be justified. If a living being is seen as a thing to own, its easier to justify nonethical practices ... sound familiar?

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