Definition Of Horse Abuse

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Abuse is something we all think we know when we see it, but what exactly is horse abuse?


I was on one of my regular visits to America a few years ago when I heard of a clinic being held near Sacramento, California. It was the annual Buck Brannaman clinic for the area. Buck has visited Australia a couple of times and was a student of Ray Hunt in his younger days. These days Buck is a big time clinician/trainer in his own right. He is the author of several books and videos and was consultant and trainer on the movie set of the "Horse Whisperer."

I arrived just as Buck was beginning a session in the round yard with a little buckskin stud. The colt had not had much handling in its life and had been brought to the clinic to be started under saddle. From early on it was evident that colt did not have much interest or time for anything the human had to offer. It was as if the horse considered his own manure did not exude an unpleasant odour. Buck was riding his chestnut mare while working the buckskin. The colt tried a few times to mount Buck’s mare and when that didn't work he took to trying to double barrel her. Buck went to town trying to convince that buckskin that he should move his feet when and how Buck wanted him to move. For a while there was a lot of dust flying and both Buck and the colt began to sweat profusely. From my point of view, it was fascinating to watch Buck working such a difficult horse. But it was clear that many in the crowd were somewhat uncomfortable at the level of assertiveness and strength that Buck used in the round yard. There were several times when Buck used such a degree of pressure that colt was threatening to try to clear the fence.

The session dragged on for perhaps 2 hours. During that time the colt had gone from a dominant and dangerous horse to a frightened and almost panicked horse to a quiet and contented horse. That little fellow had gone through a life change in a matter of just a couple of hours. Life with humans was no longer full of stress and adversary. He learned that life around humans could be ok.

When it was all over a lady from the audience asked a question that seemed to echo the thoughts of many present that day. "You put that horse through a lot pressure that it almost seemed cruel. Wouldn't it have been better to go slower over maybe two weeks rather than stress him to the max in order to get the job done in two hours?"

I'll never forget Buck's reply. "Ma'am, I could have done it the way you suggested. But what favour would I have done that horse by letting him stay screwed up for another two weeks. If I can make life around humans better for him in two hours, why would I want him to feel as bad as he did when he arrived here today for another two weeks. What benefit is that to the horse? I can fix it today for him so I'm gonna. You may not be able to get it fixed today and you may need two weeks or two months or two years. That's ok for you. But I'm gonna get him feeling better today."

At that moment Buck helped me greatly. I had been struggling for many years for some sort of guide line to help me define what I believe constituted abuse or cruelty. I knew what abuse was when I saw it, but I didn't know how to define abuse and what was common about all the forms of abuse that I had seen. If somebody asked what was animal abuse I could tell them about what a terrible crime it is to starve an animal or leave them in pain etc.. But I didn't know how to encompass all the forms of abuse in one definition. Buck helped me over this hurdle on this one day in California.

So the Ross Jacobs definition of “
horse abuse is anything that we inflict on a horse that does not benefit the horse.”

I am sure many of you won't agree with this definition, but I have tested and re-tested it over the years and it has never failed me. There are a couple of assumptions that go along with this definition. The first is that horses and humans do need to get along with each other. And secondly, that horses must fulfill certain needs asked of them by humans. If you take these two points as not open for argument, then my definition holds for me. If you don't accept the assumptions, then you can consider domestication of horses to be an abuse. That's ok because each to their own.

You may be asking how my definition works. What is the use of it? Well, when I see something going on with a horse I can now be sure whether or not in my mind there is abuse or cruelty. For example, even though many thought what Buck was doing in the round yard to the buckskin colt was cruel I know that it wasn't. It wasn't because what Buck was doing was for the benefit of the horse. The horse went through hell and back, but after two hours life was much better for that horse. It wasn't just that Buck made the horse give in. He actually got through to the inside of the horse and taught him that all those worries the horse had about humans that caused him to be so dominant and dangerous were totally unnecessary. That life around humans could have it's good moments. Some may have called it "tough love."

On the other hand, the owner who smacks their horse on the nose after they have been bitten has acted abusively. Why? Because punishment has no benefit for the horse. You can smack your horse for biting, but you haven't actually done anything about the reason he bit you in the first place. Even if he never bites you again, he will still habour those same feelings inside that prompted him to bite you. Normally those feelings will surface and be exhibited in some other form of unwanted behaviour such as head tossing or stomping or fidgeting. But if you acted before he bit you to alleviate the worries that will lead him to bite, then you have done something to benefit your horse.

I'm not trying to force my definition or values regarding abuse on anybody. This is not an area where right and wrong are written in stone. But I am trying to provide something for people to think about. I'm sure we all agree that starving a horse is cruel, but what about a slightly less obvious example like using a drop noseband to keep a horse's mouth shut? Is that cruel? What advantage does a noseband have for the horse? In what way does a noseband help the horse feel better? These are the sort of questions that challenge us to provide a definition of abuse that satisfies each of us.

By my definition I guess you could make a list of abuses that would fill a large book. Anything from beating a horse with a cricket bat to rugging on a warm day. But it is never black and white and there are an infinite number of degrees of abuse. Is it just as cruel to ride in an ill fitting saddle as it is to keep a horse in a paddock by itself? Who knows? Is it just as bad to hobble a horse to make it stand still for saddling as it is to beat a horse for not standing still? Who knows? Is it just as abusive to dock a horse's tail for the sake of beauty as it is to not trim his feet regularly? Who knows? In my opinion, all these things are an abuse because they are of no benefit to the horse. Many would disagree with me. Perhaps you do.