50 Shades of Gray (Ethics, not Erotica)

Something hasn’t sat well with me since my last ride (a couple days ago– I’ve been traveling):

That is the use of force.

We were working on an exercise that required me to tap-tap-tap gently with the whip in a rhythm. My horse when through the exercise fine, but it revealed something unsettling about my own skill level. Namely, I wasn’t skilled enough to lighten the use of the whip while still using it rhythmically.

I couldn’t go touch-touch-touch with it or even tap-touch-touch or tap-touch-tap. It was like I was stuck in one gear when I needed to have a variable speed. I need to be able to vary the use of aid support/force even while using it in a cadence and be able to lighten it, not just add to it.

Most riders and trainers, I suspect, would not be bothered by this.

A trainer friend recently ventured to say that probably 95% of the dressage trainers out there cross the line of abuse with horses. 95%!! Dressage can hardly be art if abuse is that prevalent.

While most of the trainers I know genuinely are compassionate people who love horses and dressage, the unfortunate fact is that the door to abuse opens when welfare tradeoffs are made. This isn’t to point fingers at anyone (I was a professional once; I know how hard it can be), but to point out that there is a lot of gray area in training ethics.

As the late Egon von Neindorff said, “Where skill ends, abuse begins.”

It is that subtle. It is as subtle as getting stuck tap-tap-tapping in a rhythm while doing a training exercise. It’s as subtle as pushing a horse for a little bit more than they are able to give to please an owner or try for a competition. It’s time for the horse world to start having open conversations about financial sustainability and the relationship between day-to-day training – even at backyard places—and money.

I don’t have easy answers for this one. Not with myself, not with the greater dressage community. I’m taking the step forward and a hard look at myself in the mirror and to start acknowledging the fine lines of where my skill ends.

I invite others to do the same.

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