In the equine world, we identify three major areas of abuse: physical, emotional, and chemical. FEI General Regulations define abuse as “an action or omission which is likely to cause pain or unnecessary discomfort to a horse, including but not limited to any of the following” (which I have summarized):

  • to whip or beat horses excessively;
  • to subject a horse to any kind of electric shock device;
  • to use spurs excessively or persistently;
  • to jab the horse in the mouth with the bit or any other device;
  • to compete using an exhausted, lame, or injured horse;
  • to “rap” a horse (manually hit the legs over a jump);
  • to abnormally sensitize or desensitize any part of a horse;
  • to leave a horse without adequate food, drink, or exercise; and
  • to use any device or equipment which causes excessive pain to the horse upon knocking down an obstacle.

For example, whips and spurs are considered artificial aids, and when used in an appropriate manner to help the horse better understand what is expected of him, abuse is not in play. However, when the whip is used to vent an athlete’s temper, such as when it is used on a horse’s head, it breaks the skin, it is used more than three times in a row or following elimination; or it is used excessively to the point the skin is welted, these actions are always considered abuse.

Similarly, with spurs, if blood is drawn on the flanks from overuse, it is often abuse – it does not matter whether the actions were intentional or unintentional.

The question of welfare also includes the emotional well-being of our horses, a stated mandate in most “Codes of Conduct” surrounding equines. Included in this responsibility is good management including quality of stabling, feed, forage, and water, plus foot care, well-fitting tack and a health care program. Fitness to compete is also very important; horses should be entered in competitions where they have proven competence.

Chemical abuse relates to both physical and emotional abuse, for example, making a horse’s legs sensitive by the application of any substance or removing natural sensitivity, which are both abusive (and dangerous!). Doping and illicit use of medication are also serious welfare issues.

When you see stewards standing in warm-up rings or walking through barns at shows, here are a few of the things they may be watching for:

  • In warm-up rings, we watch for rule infractions regarding the building of warm-up fences. Many mistakes are made from fence-setters simply ignorant of the rules (offset oxers, illegal groundlines, etc.). We also watch for situations that might become unsafe, and we make sure fence heights are appropriate for the class. We also confirm appropriate tack and horse boots are in use.
  • In the barns, stewards are looking for anything that may negatively affect the welfare of the horse, such as horses tied for extended periods, withheld water, stalls not mucked, unauthorized administration of medication, or efforts being made to sensitize or hypersensitize a horse’s leg(s).

At bronze, silver and even some gold shows, stewards are usually happy to help and educate. At FEI competitions, we perhaps might expect more competence. We are involved in a sport with many critics and videos that go viral before the barn door is closed. Consider how your actions may be misinterpreted by an unknowing public and always be cognizant of the welfare of your equine partner.