Traumatic Horse Training: Can You Spot Abuse?

When do horse training methods cross the line from accepted to abusive? Despite significant advances in scientific knowledge about horse welfare and behavior, abusive training still occurs.

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Traumatic Horse Training
Horses that have suffered training abuse might build lifelong associations with those negative experiences. | Photo: iStock

When do horse training methods cross the line from accepted to abusive? 

Breaking. It’s what our industry calls training a horse to be ridden, driven, or led with a halter, to accept tack and direction beneath or within it. But some trainers and riders have taken the word quite literally: breaking a horse of undesired habits, breaking his will to resist the confines and pressures of saddle and bridle … even breaking his spirit to flee perceived danger.

Suffice it to say, people haven’t always looked out for the horse’s best interest—physiologically and psychologically. But as society becomes more aware of animal welfare issues and as science reveals more truth about what horses experience in terms of stress, pain, and learning, training is evolving. And, on the whole, say our experts, equine education has become gentler, more conscientious, and, gradually, more guided by scientific principles.

But for all that, horse training is still sometimes far from ideal, they add, reporting that some trainers approach it ­incorrectly—leading to harmful consequences for the horse. And training abuse can occur in the elite competition world, leisure riders’ backyards, and everywhere between.

What Is Abuse?

How people define abuse depends on their perceptions and contexts, including historical and cultural backgrounds that vary worldwide, says Debbie Busby, MSc, MBPsS, representing the British organization Human Behavior Change for Animals (HBCA) CIC.

In fact, our individual definitions of abuse have likely changed over the years, she says. Realistically speaking, many of us have perhaps tried or encountered horse training tactics in decades past that are no longer used today. But were those methods abusive?

“Some older practices have changed or fallen out of favor, while others are frowned upon in public but still carried out in private,” says Busby. “And meanwhile, some modern techniques, like rollkur (forced neck hyperflexion), are more abusive than the older ones.”

So where do you draw the line? Busby doesn’t think you can. “The line can only be drawn when those drawing it have an understanding of the horse’s ability to cope physiologically and emotionally with the demands placed on them and the emotional effect of the application of the training stimuli,” she says.

Undoing What’s Been Done

Abuse demarcation discussions aside, experts know that when horses come home from a trainer spooky, aggressive, dangerous to ride, or apathetic, they often get sent away for someone else to “fix” them.

“A common case I get is the horse that’s been whipped for getting scared,” says science-based horse trainer Andy Booth, an Australian who teaches learning theory in practice in Southwest France. “A professional has beaten the horse for reacting with a flight response to something scary. But all that does is make it scared of being scared. It doesn’t take away the scared. So then it gets sent to me.”

Booth says he’s worked with everything from horses that buck off their riders before they can get punished for bucking to those terrified of horse show photographers because a person beside a jump means the top pole might rise suddenly.

“Even the inhibition of flight response is cruel, like locking them in the stall the first time you get on them,” Booth says. “These horses get some pretty horrible associations with having a rider on their backs.”

Some horses need “fixing” due to abusive management. “I got sent a young mare who was terrified of everything, including other horses, and was just so unwilling to work,” says Australian dressage trainer Rebecca Rooke, who’s based in Central France. “She’d been shut up in isolated stalls with solid walls her whole short career—apparently a method for getting her to ‘concentrate’ on her work. It took a while, but now that she can socialize and feel like a horse again, she’s more enthusiastic about working under saddle.”

Unnatural feeding practices can also border on abusive, Rooke adds. “You’re asking a lot of physical effort of these horses, yet there’s this running idea still that they need mostly concentrated feeds and only a little bit of hay a day,” she says. “A client sent me a big gelding who was sent away from his last trainer as being impossible, aggressive, and high-strung (on such a diet). … Then the trainer would make things worse by punishing him, locking him up without food or water at all so he’d be ‘manageable’—essentially, exhausted—during workouts. When I got him, I put him on free-access hay and helped him have positive associations with training. Now he’s a cuddly teddy bear and a great dressage mount, too.” 

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to reverse the effects of training abuse, says Booth. And they don’t forget those negative experiences. “Associations are lifelong, and sometimes the reactions will just pop back up,” he says. “We just have to try to fix them again.”

When Things Go Too Far

Veterinarians know trainer abuse as soon as they see it, says Amy Rucker, DVM, a podiatry-focused veterinarian at MidWest Equine, in Columbia, Missouri. She recalls a case where she came alongside a treating veterinary team to examine a laminitic horse—an exam that revealed an even more tragic tale.

The horse had cuts in the corners of his mouth as well as a large wound on each side, consistent with spur marks. “I had never seen anything like it­—they were full-thickness skin wounds, and when I put the horse down two-and-a-half months later (from laminitis secondary to conditions resulting from the abuse), they still hadn’t completely healed,” says Rucker. “In my experience the abuser doesn’t directly kill the horse. The horse dies after falling while its head is ‘tied around’ or from stress-related secondary problems such as colic.” 

Meanwhile, owners might be unaware of what’s transpired. “This owner was devastated by the ordeal her horse endured, not only at the trainer’s but also the prolonged medical battle,” Rucker adds. “They were heartbroken that their … horse could be a victim. Horses are nonverbal and completely dependent upon their person—a relationship similar to that between a parent and small child.”

Traumatic Horse Training
Some potentially effective training tactics can cross the line into abuse. For example, tying a horse to teach it patience can turn into an exercise in learned helplessness ( | Photo: iStock

Susi Cienciala, DVM, an equine veterinarian at Deep Creek Veterinary Services, in Enderby, British Columbia, remembers treating a reining horse whose tongue had been split in half from bit abuse. “We also had a Morgan client who wanted us to cut the tail nerves to stop the swishing,” she says. “Of course, we said no.”

But her most striking memory of abuse was when she had to remove an embedded noseband from a horse with pliers. “There was just no other way to free up that horse’s nose,” she says.

Veterinarian-confirmed training abuse can lead to legal consequences. Rucker’s client is currently involved in a lawsuit with her horse’s trainer. In 2015 reining trainer Mark Arballo was sentenced to 180 days of home detention and three years of probation after leaving a 5-year-old Quarter Horse mare, Bella Gunnabe Gifted, bitted up with long shanks in a round pen in San Diego, California. She flipped over and suffered a basilar skull fracture, requiring euthanasia. According to the civil complaint, the trainer initially whipped the mare to try to get her to stand up again, unsuccessfully. The civil case ended in a settlement for $160,000. Arballo lost his association memberships and the right to train horses during his probation period, which ended in 2018.

Why Does it Happen?

If the point is to train horses to be great mounts, why would anyone abuse them?

To achieve improved performance, mostly, say our sources. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unethical training tactics in use, says Booth, that give trainers an edge. “There’s just not a level playing field for ethical training,” he says.

Rucker agrees. “A very small percentage of horses will naturally perform at the elite level, but everyone wants to have the horse that does,” she says. “That leads to forcing them, sometimes in very unnatural ways.”

That’s especially true, she adds, for young horses being trained in a very short period to get to futurities, “where the winner receives both fame and fortune. Owners may be motivated by prize money, but trainers also pursue name-recognition for winning large competitions.” 

Related Content: Welfare Over Winning: Protecting Show Horse Welfare
RELATED CONTENT: Welfare Over Winning: Protecting Show Horse Welfare

What’s more, Rucker notes, there’s high pressure in training barns to prepare a large number of horses for shows with a limited amount of time and staff. “It’s not just a trainer problem,” she says. “It’s also an owner expectation problem. Some owners will not accept that their horse is not competing at a winning level. The trainer is pressured by the possibility of the owner moving the horse, which may have profound financial consequences after the loss of training, transport, and show fees. The horse may simply need more time to develop, or the lack of winning may be due to the owner/rider. At any rate, trainers are often pushed to come up with an immediate, low-cost solution if a horse isn’t winning.”

A complex case of conflict of interest reinforces those expectations, says Rucker. “There are too many incestuous relationships between trainers, veterinarians, owners, and judges,” she says, with roles overlapping to the extent it negatively impacts what’s considered acceptable in competition and what isn’t.

As a result, you get training tricks that might be effective, but cross the line into abuse, she says. Excessive spurring, wearing a horse out, depriving him of food and water, tying his head up, tying his head down, tying his head sideways, tying up one leg, tightening his noseband, tightening his leg boots, placing tacks or chemicals under boots, locking him in rollkur, poling with rails … the list goes on.

“A lot of people just prefer to take winning over ethical equitation,” Booth says.

Still, many people don’t see these practices as abusive; it’s just what they’ve always done when training horses, says Mette Uldahl, DVM, Cert. Equine ­Diseases, of Vejle Hestepraksis in Denmark, Fédération Equestre Internationale National Head Veterinarian for Denmark, veterinary consultant for the Danish Equestrian Federation, and president of the Federation of European Equine Veterinary Associations.

“Human perception works in many interesting ways,” Uldahl says. “If we have adapted to perceive a certain scenario as acceptable, then we are able to neglect signs of discomfort, which we would easily recognize in other scenarios. This is part of what happens in the riding industry.”

Modern Abuse

Fortunately, training has evolved, say our sources, and primarily for the better. “When I first started as a vet 25 years ago, many of my clients were real horsemen, but they weren’t able to benefit from shared knowledge like they can today—mainly thanks to the internet,” Rucker says. “That’s led to a revolution in training and welfare. But not everyone’s there yet.”

Lack of education is an issue, as is a lack of understanding that people need to change what they’re doing, says Busby. “We see a lot of unconscious ­incompetence—meaning people don’t know that they don’t know something,” she says.

There’s also the blind faith many owners have in professionals. “People want to achieve a training result and don’t know how else to achieve it other than to hand things over to an expert, even if they have reservations about the trainer,” Busby says. “That trainer might tell the rider to beat her horse with a plumbing pole. And because the expert told her to do it, she feels like she doesn’t have the power to disagree with him, and/or she doesn’t know better.”

Uldahl agrees. “Unfortunately, there are still many examples of horses being ‘educated’ by riders (professionals and amateurs) using various types of equipment but with poor knowledge, or even people deliberately making shortcuts and thereby sacrificing horse welfare,” she says.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are people practicing anthropomorphism. Essentially, these owners are literally loving their horses to death.

“They forget their horses are horses,” Booth says. “They don’t mean to abuse their horses, but some of the things they do end up being accidentally abusive.”

Take, for example, mistraining that teaches the horse to disregard figurative boundaries around humans, posing a safety issue. While that’s not abuse directly, Uldahl says it can become abuse if the horse injures someone due to this behavior and gets punished for it.

“Professional trainers sometimes get horses that got started this way, and they’re actually dangerous,” she says. “The trainers might choose to use a method that’s considerably harsher than what would have been necessary if the horse had been handled correctly from the beginning. All equine vets dread such horses, because they’re really difficult and dangerous to handle.”

Other times, the owner might see the horse as capable of human feelings and emotions and then blames and resents the horse when it “makes bad decisions.” This resentment can cause a domino effect of unintentional abuse, Booth says, including avoiding the horse (i.e., neglecting it), being vocally or physically ­aggressive, and depriving him of basic needs, such as food, shelter, and ­companionship.

“It’s not that the owners don’t care,” says Rucker. “It’s like they’ve swung in the opposite direction, and the horse becomes this spoiled child to them” that they punish with inattention or disdain.

Going Forward

Stronger welfare laws might help stop abuse. But to be effective, they’d have to not only define individual practices as clearly abusive but also apply to situations outside competitions, which are harder to police, says Busby. “What riders really need in many cases is a sort of emotional epiphany that gets them to change their behavior,” she says.

Well-aimed financial incentives could be an answer, Rucker adds. “If sponsors directed the high-money prizes to older horse classes instead of the futurities, that could really influence the industry,” she says. “You can never regulate what’s going on behind the scenes, but you can change the overall dynamic by making it so people want to still be able to show a horse when he’s 18 instead of retiring him when he’s 6.

“If a horse is experiencing lameness issues, for instance, our goal should be to get the horse sound, no matter how long it takes,” she continues. “Unfortunately, if a large show is on the immediate horizon, extended rest and rehabilitation is often not an option. We change our focus from getting the horse sound to getting it sound enough.’ ”

Meanwhile, ongoing research and education are critical, Uldahl adds. “We all have to try to be humble: Observe, investigate, and document how horses react in different scenarios to be able to offer evidence-based advice,” she says.

Take-Home Message

Despite significant advances in scientific knowledge about welfare and behavior, abusive training occurs sometimes, our sources say. It’s often a result of the drive to reach the top, combined with a lack of conviction about new principles or a hard-nosed belief that something is okay “because it’s always been done this way.” However, if scientists, federations, and owners unite in both awareness and proactive efforts, they add, we can hope for a safer, kinder future for our horses.


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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