Showjumping, in general, is not designed to be a cruel sport in the equestrian industry. But what aspects of show jumping can make it cruel to the horses? Do horses actually enjoy jumping?
Showjumping is not necessarily cruel to the horse. When a horse is fit and healthy and has the conformation and ability to perform as a top show jumping athlete – it is not cruelty. Cruelty comes from the training aspects, the way the rider rides, the equipment that is used on the horse, and the cases of continuing riding a horse that is in pain.
While standing next to the showjumping ring, I cannot help but wonder if all these horses are actually enjoying their job or if this is just for us as riders and the spectators, what if it is animal abuse being blatantly ignored? I will go more into detail on how to showjumping is not cruel to the horse necessarily, but how humans can make it cruel.
What is cruelty?
Cruelty can be defined as the purposeful, inhumane treatment of animals other than for self-defense or survival. Animal cruelty is pain and suffering inflicted on animals by humans. This includes abuse, starvation, inflicting suffering, neglect, excessive killing, and experimenting.
The term is also thrown around a lot and is used very objectively. For Vegans, breeding and slaughtering of animals constitutes animal cruelty. Using them for entertainment, confining animals in small spaces, and using them for their fur and by-products are also defined as cruel to specific groups of people. For others, it is the sight of a freezing, starving pet and inflicting pain on animals for no apparent reason.
Though I’m not going to go into much detail about how we all perceive cruelty, my perspective is that all animals deserve to be treated with love and kindness, they shouldn’t have to suffer or live in pain just for our own needs and entrainment.
What age can horses start showjumping?
Due to the high competitiveness in today’s showjumping rings, riders will do a lot to win. The training of show jumping horses takes time, patience, a lot of effort, and especially money.
Starting horses off younger cuts time off from ‘maturing,’ and the horse then starts ‘earning their keep’ when they start competing. Plus, a talented horse will have a high value on the market, especially if he has a competitive history.
When does it start to become cruel? Unnecessary? Abuse?
Horse’s and their skeletal structure take time to mature and become strong enough to not only carry themselves but a rider as well. All breeds of horses mature at the same rate. When starting off a horse, the best thing to do is to wait until their growth plates are converted into solid bone, the most important ones are the growth plates in the legs, the back, and the pelvis.
Though it may take a longer time, waiting for these growth plates to convert into bone is a safe route to ensure that you do not dislocate the bones nor cause any lasting harm to the bone structures, joints, tendons, and ligaments.
Fusion of the growth plates in horses starts from the most bottom part and goes upward as they age. This means that the lower down the growth plate, the earlier the fusion will be.
The front limbs are the most important as they carry the most load after landing from the jump, the fetlocks, cannon bones, and the knees. In the hind limbs, the fetlocks and hocks are especially important as these joints take all the load when the horse readies for the take-off in front of the jump.
When do the growth plates in the limbs fuse?
The long pastern bone (under the fetlock) fuses between 6 months and a year of age.
The cannon bones’ plates fuse at between 8 months and 1.5years of age.
The knees only fuse at the age of 1.5 and 2.5 years of age.
The weight-bearing part on top of the radius fuses between 2.5 and 3 years old
The hocks fuse later than the other parts of the limbs, even though it is lower down. This joint only fuses at 4 years old. This is why putting strain on the hock joint in young horses is a great risk for injury.
The horse has 32 vertebrae in his spinal column, which means that there are over 32 growth plates that need to fuse. Because the back and neck of the horse are horizontal, when carrying a load, you run a higher risk of spraining the back as the load runs parallel to the load, whereas, in the limbs, the load runs perpendicular to the joints in the limbs.
Male horses tend to mature 6 months later than female horses. This means that a male horse may only be fully matured at the age of 8 years old.
The last vertebrae to fuse in the spinal column are the vertebrae at the base of his neck. Thus it is of imperative importance that a young horse should not be yanked be the head/neck, nor should he put a lot of strain on his neck region.
The horse’s teeth are also not ‘mature’ until the age of six, so now, bitting the horse up to ride them through jumping courses can damage their teeth as well, and, as we all know, that is painful.
Backing and riding at a young age
When being backed for the first time, the horse needs to be mostly mature to be able to carry a human on their backs. The best age to back a young horse is between 4 to 6 years old. This decreases the chance of injury to the skeletal structures of the horse.
However, this does not stop people from advertising 4-year-old horses already jumping 1m plus tracks. This means that the horse is asked to not only carry a rider on their backs but also jump over big obstacles, overloading those fragile joints with weight and stress.
Personally, a calm horse is a happy horse and equals a great learner and an eager-to-please ride. When horses are relaxed and comfortable, they will learn quicker and have fewer behavioral problems while under saddle.
Mental stress or fear in horses causes aggression, ‘naughtiness,’ and dangerousness. This leads to the riders looking at training aids to force the horse into submission or co-operation; these training methods or aids can become cruelty very quickly.
What everyone in the equestrian industry agrees is cruel:
- Excessive whipping
- Excessive spurring
- Harshly pulling or yanking the bit
- Excessive kicking
- Working the horse to exhaustion
- Hitting them over the head
- Withholding food or water
- Lack of proper care
- Tack and equipment used to inflict pain
What leads to abuse?
For someone that loves horses dearly, it is hard to admit that we haven’t all done something cruel to our horses. Cruelty is not just extremes; it comes in many forms.
The pressure to win, high standards in the competition ring, wrong trainers, uneducated riders, comparing your horse to others, horses that aren’t talented in that specific discipline being forced to perform. Relying on force and training mechanisms designed to ‘force’ horses, anger and patience issues, false expectations, judges rewarding unrealistic goals, the list goes on and on.
Continuing to ride an unsound horse, for example, is cruel, and forcing the horse to keep performing even though they are in pain is pure abuse.
Rider and trainer responsibilities
It is, first and foremost, the rider’s responsibility to train and ride the horse in a way that ensures the horse is always happy, comfortable, and pain and stress-free. A good trainer is of imperative importance. The owner of the horse needs to check that the stabling and care that the horse receives is for the love of the horse and keeps in mind that the horse’s safety and well-being are their top priority.
The trainer needs to educate the rider and owner on good horsemanship skills and not set impossible goals for them, adapting training methods to fit the individual horse and riders’ needs and abilities. The trainer should have a relationship with both the horse and rider, ensuring that the horse is not only seen as an athlete that has to perform but also a partner in a team.
The trainer and rider work as a team to train the horse in a proper manner as well as care for the horse to the best of their abilities. Using good horsemanship means putting the horse first and understanding horses – this means knowing their anatomy, breeding, natural skills, talent, and behaviors.
Providing the horse with proper fitting tack and equipment, for example, the horse will act out in an attempt to ‘show’ their pain, instead of whipping or punishing the horse for acting out, find the cause.
In conclusion, show jumping is not inherently cruel to horses. It is the trainers, riders, and sometimes impossible and unrealistic standards that can make it cruel and abusive. Although some horses really enjoy their jobs as professional show jumpers, when a horse is forced to perform under stress and pain, it becomes cruel.
A horse is one of the most willing, gentle, and best partners that we as riders are blessed to have, and building a relationship on trust, love, and care is much more important than a first place. Your horse will do anything for you as a rider, and the potential to achieve in the showjumping ring becomes limitless with a good trainer, good horsemanship, and a good horse.