Angry words for angry actions

By Simon Palmer


We live in a strange world. I’m going to sound like my father now, and say that when I was a young child the only way you could hear about anything was through a newspaper, via gossip, or through the news on the TV or radio. But now, things are instant. We get to hear about things “as they happen” instead of after the fact. While this approach for instant news, or gratification seems to be the natural progression for all things media, it can lead to some very unsettling moments that I think we need to consider.


Now before anyone chides me for the following, read it through throughly, then think about it for 30 minutes, and then if you still feel aggrieved you have the right to take what ever action you feel like…


I want to talk about Oliver Townend at Badminton! Have your hackles gone up already? Good…


Step back and lets look at the underlying issue that I think exists with the whole situation. I make no claims as to knowing anymore than the next person. I’ve seen the footage, and seen the litigious comments on Facebook. I’ve read the statement from the British Horse Society, and noted the judgement from the FEI. But I want to talk about the elephant in the room.


Professional riders who compete at this level are very driven. They have to produce results to continue in something that is quite clearly a passion for them. They have the enviable role of doing a job they love, and as with all jobs like that, there are more elements to it than the romantic notion that they have the most amazing lifestyle.


I think this particular incident has and should open a far larger discussion than simply punitive measures against a rider for his treatment of a horse. He was clearly wrong to use the whip in the manner he did. We accept that, and because of that the bile has risen and many people want to see him suffer for making a horse suffer. Enough already!


The bigger issue is the treatment of horses in professional competition. Aggression is not and should not be part of this sport. Horses are living breathing animals, and it is widely acknowledged that they posses a level of intelligence that makes them more than a “dumb animal”, not that that makes it excusable for any animal to be treated cruelly. But the underlying driver for actions such as the one currently being debated is actually not the sportsperson who is being focused on. It is further down the chain than that.


The root of his actions is simply money. But not just his finances, the people who own the horses who give these riders their rides. If their horse exceeds expectations, performs well, and are lauded. The value of the animal either for breeding or simply selling goes up. It can always be argued that the costs of keeping animals is high and the return on investment small when you take into account the number of horses that rise through the ranks only to fail at the last.


The elephant in the room is greed.


Over the next few weeks we shall see what if anything happens regards Oliver Townend. But, you would think that anyone with a horse such as those seen riden by him would want to remove their horses from his business. They would believe the treatment of the horse should be better than that, and he should lose the rides. If the owners of horses at this level felt that treatment of animals was important, far and away above that of money, then they would either not be in the business, or would look for a better sportsperson.


We only saw what we saw though. It is widely accepted that the treatment of horses behind the closed doors of some professional yards is less than fair too. The point of this piece is that we should not be using angry words to vilify one rider. We should be using our anger to changed the whole business. Everything from Rolkur, blue tongue, and stories of electric tape on fences, through to changing the height of jumping poles as the horse jumps, placing weights on hooves to increase leg action should stop.


I recall a very dear friend (now departed) saying that the way to change a sale persons behaviour was through their pockets!


What could easily be done to start the process of driving change? The governing bodies should be more willing to give more than a warning, perhaps? But what if you provided a positive outcome for those who do rely on skill not aggression to win competitions? Instead of punishing the bad sportsmen, incentivise the good. Put accelerated prize pots for sportspersons who clearly demonstrate fair and equitable treatment to their rides not just at one event but through actively seeking spot inspections of training practices, along with  fair treatment in competition. Expensive? Undeniably, but then thats what sponsors are for?!!


It’s easy to come up with ideas that may or may not work, however, the start of solving this issue, is with the owners of the horses. They too should be held accountable if they are willing to allow this sort of action to happen with their own animals that they place with a rider who simply has anger issues, and I want to clearly point out that I am not talking about an specific rider at this point.


The judges at competitions should make a stand and where an animal is exhausted, stop the ride. If it means twenty rides are stop, then twenty rides should be stopped. Entertainment, or money is not, and I cannot stress this enough, it simply is not a good reason for what we see.


It is time to change. From the owners of horses, to the professional sportsmen and women who should remember that the paying public is where the money comes from. Would the FEI be able to run competitions if the sponsors were vilified along with the riders. I think the money would stop coming into the sport.


It is time to stop this….there is no excuse. I’m not angry, I’m concerned, worried, and sad, that humans believe that it is acceptable to be cruel.


What about you?