Animal abuse is unacceptable, and those who commit it need to face serious consequences. Period. Hard stop.

My heart has broken watching the videos that came out this week of an Olympian – an OLYMPIAN – torturing horses, and hearing the stories of the mental abuse of the riders in his world as well. This, and the findings of the Operation X documentary about life at a prominent training farm in Denmark have me desperately, desperately afraid for our sport.

Because those farms clearly had a cultural institution of what is obviously animal cruelty. Wailing on horses with a whip, horses that are clearly not understanding what is being asked of them. A conversation between grooms about the best way to cover bloody spur marks so that the horses can be shown to potential buyers. These are easy things on which to draw the line, on which to say “this is absolutely not ok.”

But there’s a lot of things that experienced horsemen would completely understand, and the average muggle would not. Can you imagine why the non-horse-person would look askance at a chain lead shank over the nose of a horse that can get boisterous, even though we horse folks can clearly see it as an extra line of security when a 120-pound human leads a 1500-pound flight animal? Can you imagine seeing a six foot long whip, if you were a non horse person, and imagining the worst, even though such a device is a common tool to help tactfully and fairly teach piaffe from the ground? It’s long because horses are big, and we use it to touch the hind leg or top of the croup from a safe place, free of the kick zone, but the non-horsey don’t know that.

It’s why the broad-stroke social media comments like “The double bridle is torture” are really unhelpful. I saw that one recently. The double bridle is a tool. It can be used with tremendous tact and compassion. A snaffle is not inherently better, nor is a bitless bridle. I’ve seen plenty of ick riding in both. I’ve seen plenty of tactful use of spurs, just as I’ve seen plenty of ick use of them. And when we paint the internet with these broad strokes, we run the risk that the uneducated read them and perpetuate them. And that’s bad for sport.

Remember when the Modern Pentathlete had the rough go in 2021, and her coach reached through the fence and slapped the horse on the bum? The muggles lost their minds. The experienced horsemen of the world saw the unbelievably bad riding over pretty substantial fences, saw the horses that were TOTALLY unprepared for the job of taking beginner riders over big jumps, and saw how the horses were not allowed to be schooled by good riders to give them confidence in between rounds OR allowed to be pulled from the draw pool if they were starting to struggle, and thought… the open-palm slap is the thing the world is focused on?

This is the problem. The muggles don’t know enough to separate the real, honest-to-god horse abuse from the drivel. We should continue to have productive conversations about how best to do right by our animals, and we should ALL strive to live our lives as if a hidden camera is watching us do it. But we need to remember the consequences of MISGUIDED hysteria. Let’s talk about these things with level heads.