The Ethics of Riding: A Brief & Informal Discussion
Ethical: Of, relating to, or dealing with ethics.
Ethics: Moral principles, as of an individual.
According to those definitions, my sense of ethics is my own sense of ethics, and not someone else's. What I perceive as ethical, you may perceive as morally wrong and absolutely unethical. I cannot insult you as unethical or vice-versa, because ethics are the moral principles...of an individual. I am not you; you are not me. On this note, I'd like to write a brief piece on the ethics of riding a horse, something that I've been thinking about a bit lately. I've concluded that it's entirely ethical, and, in fact, far better for the horse than not riding them (unless, of course, the horse has an injury or physical or mental condition which means that it cannot be ridden, in which case riding is unethical).
The common areas of complaint are, of course, the bit, the whip, and the spurs. Not all riders use bits, not all use whips, and not all use spurs. All are, of course, physically painful and psychologically damaging when used incorrectly. People do, unfortunately, misuse all three, and these kinds of people should not be allowed near horses or any other animals. However, when used correctly and humanely, all three are, in fact, better than alternatives.
Keep in mind as you read this that the horse is a large flight animal. On average, a horse weighs 1000-1200 pounds. Ponies weigh in at anywhere from 500-800 pounds on average; draft horses can weigh up to a ton (2000 pounds). They are flight animals: their first reaction is to run. If running is not an option, they will use their hooves and teeth. They will also buck and rear. If they do not like something, they will first try to run from it, then try to remove it so that it no longer bothers them. If a horse truly did not want to be ridden, or was in pain and could not stand the pain added by working (like running on a sprained ankle -- you're already in pain, and running only adds more pain because of the increased pressure on the sprained ankle), you would not stay on the horse's back for very long. Horses can kill people if they are experiencing enough fear or pain.
First, the bit. The key is, of course, making sure that your horse likes the bit that you are using. Each horse's mouth is a little bit different: some have flat palates, and choosing a single-joined bit will be uncomfortable for this horse because of the natural way that the single joint will bend up. Although it is often said that the lighter a bit is (that is, the less it weighs), the less severe it is. Sometimes, however, these bits rattle more than a slightly heavier one, which may make a young horse nervous. For a horse who may not like the coldness of a metal bit (which is why we should all warm up our bits for our horses in the winter!), there are plastic or rubber bits, which also provide relief for horses with sensitive mouths. Also, it is important to make sure that the bit is sized correctly for the horse's mouth.
Looking at the general types of bits, there are three (ish, since one is not actually a bit in that nothing is in the horse's mouth). First is the snaffle bit. It has no curb strap (the chain or leather piece going under the horse's chin). A snaffle works on the horse's tongue, the bars of the mouth (the place on the gums where there aren't any teeth), and the corners of the lips. In this sense, so long as you're not sawing on the reins and ripping your horse's face off, a snaffle is usually a very mild bit (when you get into twisted bits, etc, they can be very harsh if used in the wrong hands, but when used by an educated rider act as a helpful tool to slightly adjust the horse's way of going). Secondly is the curb bit, which has a chain or leather strap going under the horse's chin, attached to the bit. These bits work on the horse's tongue, bars of the mouth, lips, the chin groove (where the chain/leather piece is), and the top of the head. More severe than a snaffle, yes? In educated hands, they will help encourage a horse to drop its head if it is very high-headed, but if used in uneducated or heavy hands, they will be very severe. The final type of "bit" is a hackamore (which is not really a bit, because it is a bitless bridle -- nothing goes in the horse's mouth). A hackamore works on the horse's nose, jaw, and the top of their head. In fact, a bitless bridle can be more severe than a bitted bridle. Notice how none of the other bits have worked on the horse's nose? In a regular bitted bridle, the only thing on the horse's nose in the noseband, which, when properly adjusted (one finger under the horse's cheekbones, one or two fingers fitting between the horse's nose and the noseband when it's snugged up), will not affect the horse's breathing in any way. On the hackamore, if a rider is doing something with the reins (half-halting, say), he or she will put pressure on the reins, putting pressure in turn on the horse's nose. Put your finger about half way to three quarters of the way down your nose, where the cartilage is. Push down. It's hardly a comfortable experience, right? In fact, it's rather painful (and you are not a flight animal, either, whose natural response is to run from something that causes pain or fear)! Now put your two fingers in the corners of your mouth and tug gently (don't yank back like the dentist does when attempting to clean your molars: just a gentle tug). No pain -- you can feel it, of course, and if someone else did it to you, you'd ask what they wanted. That is all there is to it.
Now for another brief analogy: I find them quite helpful in my own learning odysseys, and I know many other people do as well. Lighter bits, snaffle bits, etc. -- typically viewed as more humane -- are not always better. Think of it this way. A small rock, in the hands of someone bent on harm, can cause great pain. The person will not simply throw it at you, but will drag it across the most sensitive parts of your skin to cause as much pain as possible. On the other hand, a peaceful person would know that a large rock should simply sit there, maybe be enjoyed by sitting on it and looking at the sunset, perhaps chiselling off a rough edge to make it more enjoyable to sit on. Just in this way, a snaffle bit can cause great damage to a horse in the hands of an inexperienced, heavy-handed, or just plain cruel rider. On the other hand, any bit, used correctly by the right rider, will simply finesse the horse's training, providing no pain but acting to make the whole experience more enjoyable to all, encouraging the horse to carry himself in a way that is more efficient and comfortable for him. Riding is an art, and a bit -- or a spur or whip -- in the hand of an artist creates beauty appreciate by all: horse, rider, spectator
Secondly, whips and spurs. Picture those cowboy spurs of old, which is what pops into everyone's head when the word "spur" comes up. Long shanks, huge rowels with sharp, pointed edges. I would agree with your conclusion: these are harsh. However, let's take a quick look at the spurs that most English riders use. They are usually about 1/2" to 1 1/2" long. In fact, I shall take a brief tangent to talk about how a shorter spur is not really "more humane." When using a normal leg cue, you do not turn your feet out and dig in with your heels. Instead, you squeeze your calf muscle or nudge with the inside of your foot. When you have a very short spur on, you suddenly have to turn your toes out in order to use the spur. This amount of leg movement will cause you to grip with your leg in weird places, tip in the saddle, etc. Your position is compromised, your horse is confused, and may not respond to your spur because he is too busy responding to the hundred other cues you have given by shifting your body so strangely. Now, back to the regularly scheduled program. Spurs are not used each and every single time you give the horse a cue with your leg. In fact, even your heels aren't used each time you give a horse a cue with your leg -- an educated rider will use all parts of their leg, including their lower calves (ankle/instep region) and upper calves (and they will use these separately or in tandem as necessary). The purpose of a spur is in fact not even to encourage your horse to go forward -- using a spur to do so will merely confuse your horse. Instead, the job of the spurs is to work in tandem with an educated leg to ask for collection or lateral movements. It is for this reason that FEI dressage riders wear spurs: the amount of collection (piaffe and passage, anybody?) and lateral work that they do practically demands that they have that extra bit of finesse provided by a spur. The purpose of a whip is to remind your horse to go forward. Spurs encourage your horse to please work his back and stomach muscles, which are necessary for collection and lateral work. This is a good reason why spurs should not be used on young horses, since a young horse is not prepared for the collection or lateral work that a spur is asking for.
To provide another comparison, imagine your friend is poking you to wake you up (hm, we can extend this analogy further by comparing waking you up to asking you to “collect your brain,” to remind you what a spur is for). He or she can either poke fairly lightly, but continuously and for a very long period of time (extremely annoying; will probably just piss you off in your sleepy state and make you even less willing to respond by waking up) or poke you a few times lightly, and then once just a bit harder (you will feel it a little more, but you won't bruise and the feeling will be gone in a moment, AND you will wake up). The nagging heels is very annoying and wearing on a horse, the same way someone poking you for an hour would be. It is, in fact, kinder to the horse to back your original request up once quickly with the spur. The horse is then very likely to remember the next time when you use your leg in that way, you were really asking for a leg-yield, and not a super-rushy trot. Thus, you will not need the spur again.
The spur, of course, can be misused just like any of the other two "controversial" tools. Using a spur on a young, untrained horse is absolutely unfair and will likely damage the horse psychologically in the long run. If they have never been taught what the leg cue for a canter is, and suddenly you're trying to make them canter by poking them a little harder, all you will do is confuse them. Instead, you must patiently teach the horse the canter cue with gentle methods, using only a highly educated leg. Just like you would not jump on a horse's back without first introducing them to the saddle, the bridle, the girth, some weight on their back, etc., you would not expect them to intuitively know the canter cue. Secondly, combining a spur with a weak and untrained leg is absolutely disastrous. Learning riders have not yet learned how to keep their leg still and cue with it only when needed -- and most of them have no idea what the “collection” and “lateral work” that a spur is requesting are. They do not yet have the feel or experience necessary to ask for collection or lateral work correctly. Therefore, putting a spur on the end of what is often a swinging pendulum of a leg is not a good idea. Many beginning riders ride with their feet shoved too far into the stirrups and their toes pointing out, which leaves the spur pointing straight at the horse's sides, hitting the horse each time the rider's leg swings. Not good.
Whips serve a similar purpose. The ultimate goal of spurs is to aid in collection and lateral work (which is why FEI dressage riders wear spurs: to aid in collection and lateral work). The ultimate goal of a whip is to aid in forward motion. If your horse is not tired (if you've been riding for two hours, whipping your horse to get them to go forward is only going to piss them off and result in a rider who is no longer on the horse's back), but you have cued gently with your legs once, cued a little harder with your legs a second time, and still your horse has not responded, it is appropriate to tap them with the whip -- in fact, it's a good idea to do so. Again, think about it: would you rather have someone repetitively nagging at and kicking your sides, or would you rather be asked politely a few times, and then smacked hard enough to wake you up, but not so much as to be painful or leave a mark?
To provide another scenario (because I really like them, as I’m sure you’ve noticed), think of it this way. Your parents are calling you to come down and set the table. If they keep coming up to you and saying "would you please set the table?" "would you please set the table?" "would you please set the table?" chances are that (a) you will not listen; and (b) you will eventually get angered and scream that "NO, I will NOT set the table!" On the other hand, they ask you politely a few times and then get a little louder: "I've asked you politely: now come down and set the table." You will probably (a) listen; and (b) remember next time that if you don't do it when they ask politely, they will tell you that you must do it. In both cases, you are being asked to do a painless task, and in the second case, it results in less effort and frustration for all involved.
Again, whips are not tools to be misused. You should always use a regular leg cue before using the whip. If your horse is overly tired after an already-long workout, it is in neither of your best interests to use the whip. The whip is never a punishment, only an extension of your leg aid, used when you need a bit more reminder than your leg can naturally give. If your horse is frightened of the whip, you should not use one, because a horse is a flight animal and will flee from something that it is afraid off (and since the whip is being held by someone who is on his back, the horse will buck and/or rear to get the rider, and thus the whip, away from him).
All of these are tools which must be used with care. I have not, of course, covered every scenario, and do not consider myself to be an all-knowing horseperson (in fact, what I know is about the equivalent of a bucket, and what I don't is approximately the equivalent of the ocean -- but isn't this the way with most things?). If you have any problems with what I have written, please bring them up in a peaceful, rather than an accusatory, manner. I will happily address comments or concerns which have been phrased in a respectful and inquisitive manner.
Now, because I'd much rather write this than do my homework, I shall continue. Does a horse want to be ridden?
Horsekeeping & The Desire of the Horse to be Ridden:
Well, let's look at this realistically. Horses are now domesticated animals. We are extraordinarily lucky that they have allowed us the freedom that comes from riding them. As I said at the beginning, if they truly did not want us on their backs, we would be bucked off, reared off, severely injured, possibly even dead. As much as someone may want it to be so, it is not feasible to release horses back into the wild. They have adapted to domestication and would not be able to survive in the wild as their counterparts of old did. Also, there is not enough space in the true wild anymore to allow for the many, many horses we now have in this world. It simply is not a good idea.
Secondly, there is the issue of space. This world is so industrialised and developed that it simply is not practical or even possible to allow acres of grazing land for each horse. What is possible is to provide horses with continuous access to at least a small runout attached to their stall, along with regular long hours of turnout with other horses in a large pasture or paddock. Keeping a horse cooped up in a small stall all the time is not kind to the horse. Of course, some weather conditions may make it not a good idea to turn your horse out: mud and ice particularly will damage the horse's fragile legs. Stalls should be large (in comparison to the horse: what is a large stall for a pony may be far too small for a draft horse or a mare and foal pair), well lit with sunshine in the day, clean, with fresh water at all times, and hay as often as possible. Horses should preferably be able to see other horses and whatever is happening in the barn aisle, the yard, or the arena (wherever their stall looks out).
Thirdly, horses -- in the conditions established above, the best we can offer considering the state of our world and the state of horses -- need motion. Without exercise and motion of some kind, they will become fat (and obese horses are unhealthy, the same way obese humans are) and their legs will become stocked up, stiff, and painful for them. Several hours of turnout a day is good for a horse, of course (oh, I'm a poet, and I didn't even know it...), but regular riding keeps a horse from boredom, stretches their legs, works their brains, and a host of other good things. It provides the horse with a human bond. A horse jumping with his ears pricked forward, bright eyes, legs tucked up nicely, cantering off happily -- that is a happy horse. A supple, relaxed, and well-trained horse executing a dressage manoeuvre is a horse who is carrying himself in an efficient manner that is comfortable for horse and rider (this horse is going with a round back, meaning that the rider is carried more comfortably, meaning that the rider won't bounce in the sitting trot, meaning that the horse's back is not in pain).
So no. Riding a horse, in my opinion, correctly and humanely, is not at all unethical. Rather, it allows horse and human to experience a much-needed bond and purpose. I feel that this is something one cannot make a judgment on until one has seen a truly good rider riding a horse (any horse, whether it is a young horse or an aging schoolmaster). Maybe this is not the best comparison, but dogs enjoy playing fetch. They enjoy doing that "work" (i.e. having a purpose) for a human in return for a loving, caring home. There are bad horse-owners out there, but there are bad dog owners, bad husbands, and bad mothers too. Don't give up on the whole species because of a few saddening examples.
Again, if you have any comments to make or questions to put forth, please do so in a respectful and inquisitive manner, rather than an accusatory and insulting one. If you accuse me of being wrong and insult me, you will be earmarked as a "bad question asker" -- and I've just discussed how much I don't like bad horse owners. Please. Act maturely. If I've made a mistake, please point it out. I'd like to know if I made an error somewhere (actual factual errors only, please, rather than an error in my sense of ethics). And -- if you've read this far, I'd like to thank you. I appreciate it.
Finally, a thank you to all my information sources: dictionary.com for the definitions at the beginning and my trainer for a large amount of the information contained herein (particularly that on bits and bridles -- she had a wonderful discussion a few Saturdays ago when it was waaaay too cold to ride about the different types of bits and bridles, the uses of each, etc., and she had an example of, story to go with, or visualisation tool for each thing she discussed. I must say, it was some of the best $10 and 3 hours I've spent in a while!).
**N.B. -- Thank you to evilinmycloset for correcting a major error that I made once (which I did correct later on, but still) regarding the purpose of spurs. Secondly, everything that is in red has been changed or added since my original posting. I added topic headings for ease of reading and to break things up a bit. I am thinking that I will continue to edit this tomorrow (yes, I have still more to say, and I may provide links to pictures of each item that I discuss) when I don't have such a pressing need to study for an AP European History exam!