What to Do When You See Cruelty

It was a sadly normal week in the larger horse world. Horses got hurt and humans waged war with each other about it. If you love horses, it’s easy to blame everyone in sight, easy to scream with vitriol and make sure everyone knows you are better than the haters who hurt horses. Social media is born for pontificating rage from a soft chair, gossiping with our friends who also spit venom and rant in the separate coolness of their home. It takes no special skill to see things that are wrong, especially after officials have called it out. The strange thing is that no one ranting is actively defending cruelty to horses so it’s a one-sided scream into the ethers.

This week I got accused of supporting horse abuse because I was appalled by a thread of hate-filled comments on social media. It isn’t that I don’t share their disappointment. It’s just that rage against each other doesn’t help horses.

Let’s talk horse racing. Babies die on the track before they have adult teeth. There is absolutely nothing good that can be said about racing horses. Except horses race each other in the pasture. Except that I raced my horse as a kid; we all did. Except that even at its worst, I’ve always known good people who love horses more than money and work for change, while the rest of us complain about it.

Let’s talk rescue. We could get all teary as if our sympathy will help the horse when really, we want everyone to know that we love horses so much that we are doubled over with grief. We could make a show of our personal devastation, some of it for real but some to impress others, or get to it. When I started working with rescues, I had to hate all abusers, but life isn’t always comfortably black and white. With a little experience, blanket blame didn’t work because horses fall through cracks for ordinary desperate reasons. People get sick or lose jobs. Owners die and time passes and now we’re afraid. Meanwhile, in the real world, thoughts and prayers are like an air kiss. Action must be taken; hay must be purchased and vets must be paid. Rescue horses are aided by donating money, not crying. It isn’t news that humans make mistakes; we are imperfect, and we fail. But hitting someone when they’re down is a bit like abusing a horse, isn’t it?

To listen to the lynch mob on social media, all competition is bad. All riding disciplines are cruel. All trainers abuse horses. Take a breath. If we get rid of dressage, reining, jumping, and every discipline that injures horses, then include trail riding and turnout, as well. Small farms aren’t paradise either. Should we stop owning them? Then horses won’t have jobs and it’s too late to return them all to the wild. What do you think happens to useless horses?

The mob asserts proof of cruelty by blanket example, decrying the wicked decay everywhere they look. Their world view is pessimistic and the efforts of a huge group of individuals (like us) get denied in favor of mass condemnation. It’s more dramatic that way. The problem with speaking in extremes is that it damages everyone, the ones ranting and the ones trying to make a positive change. It’s like parents name calling each other in front of the children, the stink of anger leaves a residue on us, we are smaller for it. It diminishes us just a bit in the eyes of our kids, our horses, our friends.

Which might be worth it if it worked, but when was the last time you saw anyone volunteer improvement through public ridicule? Is your own moral superiority or expertise enhanced by name-calling another? Doesn’t spewing hate on social media leave a bad taste in all our mouths?

Being an affirmative trainer or rider doesn’t mean that you don’t see cruelty, it means that you don’t succumb to it. If we believe horses are sentient and will learn more by affirming good work than frightening them with intimidation, then don’t we also have to acknowledge the same about our own species? I’m not perfect and this is personally challenging, but if we believe in compassion for horses, (forcing a breath,) then don’t we have to find it for our own much less perfect species as well?

Can we get past the cheap talk of loving horses, the cheap behaviors that only put more ill will out into the world? Horses need advocates. There are enough haters already. It’s when we are able, as a species of thinking animals, to rise above fighting and lift our collective consciousness, that real change happens.

Stand up and do something. Get on a horse and demonstrate a better way. Beat them at their own game; don’t let haters ruin the beauty of your riding discipline. Take lessons and improve your riding skills to benefit your own horse, and in the meantime, pay a good trainer. If they are doing it right, they deserve your support. If you don’t want to do it, invest in a young rider; help them attend affirmative clinics and learn a better way. Take a day off to go to abuse cases in your local court; show up for horses in real life. Welcome a useless horse into your own barn because change happens one person and one horse at a time, demonstrating a better example.

Sometimes my equine heroes let me down, but I will continue to call out the best that I see, not because they are perfect, but because the thing we pay attention to is the thing that grows.

Affirmative training means training yourself to see the best and praise it. It means we have compassion in the big world because each of us has caused a horse pain, accidentally or without knowing better, or yes, sometimes out of frustration. I hear the guilt for what good people have done to their horses every day. We all wish better for the good old horse who tolerated us when we didn’t deserve it. (The ghost of a white horse made me type that, and he’s right.)

The flat truth is that our guilt doesn’t help either. We need to find solidarity with each other, not because of adversity but from commonality. Whether we are famous or first-time owners, we are all students of the horse and works in progress. But our greatest challenge might be showing other humans the understanding and tolerance we strive to show our horses.

Through history, horses have carried humans through every stage of our attempts to civilize ourselves. Now might be the most important time of all.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Anna Blake

70 thoughts on “What to Do When You See Cruelty”

  1. “…the thing we pay attention to is the thing that grows.” That right there says it all, and includes what is inside our own selves as well. Thank you for being a bright light in the world of horses. People like you give me hope for the future we can all create together.

  2. Thank you, Anna, for yet another insightful post. ( Do you get weary of our praise I wonder??) In “my world,” the psychological world, we tend to think of those harsh judgments as a manifestation of one’s Shadow. We are not owning our own Shadow, our failures and mistakes , the potential to do that behavior, the side of us that could be or has been, consciously or unconsciously, abusive or at least harsh with our horses.

    I learned early on in this stage of my horse journey that every judgment I make about someone else’s horsemanship, the behavior circles around and I find myself doing the same , maybe not exactly the same, but in the same genre at least. Isnt that just crazy justice?? Or as you pointed out, maybe in the past I did something similar out of ignorance or arrogance. Some time back I witnessed a friend take her fist and slam it into her horse’s chest out of anger with his dancing around in nervousness. I thought it was one of the most horrific things I had seen. A few years later I found myself WANTING to do the same with one of my horses.

    • Thank you, Sarah, I’ve probably spent as much time IN therapy and you ave doing it professionally. I am haunted by demons like anyone. Praise is flattering because I work at writing, but what if I write to remind myself?? We all have that shadow…

  3. Have thought & said (to myself) all of the above – altho not quite as well spoken! Hadnt heard of any recent events – other than the dying race horses & the roundups of wild horses. I honestly believe that the social media thing only allows people to make public the things that normally they would never say! Doesnt seem as though there is any hesitation between when the thought comes into their mind & their fingers putting it “out there”.
    There are so many really great people working so very hard to make a difference in the world of people and animals. Then there are the ones who spread hate everywhere – mostly online.
    So now the only comments I make are here or on one of the blogs that are pro-wild horses.
    Thanks, Anna for saying what needed to be said.

  4. I always read your posts, poems, photos, and appreciate them, but had never had to comment it. But this one deserves special applauses. So often, criticism show only half-digested knowledge… but I would not rant about it !

  5. Gosh, Anna. Your thoughts on how we should treat our own species is spot on. A few blogs ago (can’t remember which one it was) called to mind this lyric sung by Michael Jackson: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways. And no message could’ve been any clearer: If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself, then make a change.” Seems a lot of your messages link to many popular songs that run through my head!

  6. So many thoughtful comments here from compassionate people. Compassion begins with our self dialogue and expands to those beings around us. At the least we can be the change we wish to see, and at most, be called to commit a life to reformed human understanding and behavior toward our fellow life forms. Somewhere in the middle is where we usually fall, and it’s this grey zone that takes great care to avoid judgement of any in our 360 degree midst while seeking the rightful way we each may influence change. I learn so much here through your writing, Anna, and the words of your readers. It has changed my relationship with self in a way that wells truthful tears at this moment of typing. I am confident the ripple effects are happening this very moment with more to follow. Thank you each and all.

  7. This is brilliant. I love all of us who are committed to doing better. Loving those lackng the commitment, now that’s harder. The best I can do right now is accept them, listen, allow the rants to pass through me while I continue along my path. No unnecessary drama is one of my mantras. Recently, I realized countering the drama only grows the drama, so I don’t counter it. I listen. I sometimes hear detailed stories about how a horse or mule is going to get their ass whipped, or how they need to work it out for themselves, or see those noses getting mauled, but I observe it quietly, proceed to do things the in the best way I know, and almost beyond my belief, these instances seem to lessen. I observe behavior that doesn’t come close to living up to the rants. I have to wonder if anyone wants to be cruel, or if life puts us in positions where we have to face cruelty head-on. Thank you for listening to our voices, because we all know the conversation is so very important.

  8. “Call out the best that I see.” Oh, how much better the world would be if we all did this! I will start at home with my teenage son and husband….

  9. What a strong, sane voice you have! The wisdom of maturity (emotional maturity, that is) is both soothing and hopeful. It’s not saying things aren’t wrong, or that change isn’t needed; it’s saying that we must start by changing ourselves so that love is the means by which change occurs, rather than dominance. It makes me able to believe that the change is happening, one calm and attentive gesture at a time. Thank you for being forceful about this! Forceful in your conviction, not in your effort to make people do anything! It’s called practicing what we preach. Good job🥰

  10. So sad that you’ve become part of the problem, with no idea how much bullying goes on by those doing this injurious training, I personally know quite a few people bullied seriously by them. And these people are not armchair experts, they are accomplished equestrian trainers and students many who studied with masters, this type of baloney really feeds into the smoke and mirrors game of a cohort of trainers who train against the directives and when they get caught in public with an issue with the horse cry crocodile tears – so aghast anyone who loves horses but more importantly understands correct training supports this nonsense. Facts are more important that emotive hysteria, we should stick to them.

    • Thanks for commenting, Caroline. I do know how much bullying goes on. That’s kind of the point, but I will consider your comment more deeply. I do believe in facts, I worry about our extreme responses. And I’m sure you’re not the only one who thinks I’m part of the problem. I’ll keep working on that, thank you for your input.

  11. Thank you for being a voice of reason in a world of hate. We all fall short, whether intentionally or out of ignorance. Helping those who are addressing the problem is far more effective than ranting on social media, if somewhat less cathartic. Your words always inspire me to do better.

  12. There is a huge difference between horse(wo)men who make a mistake, acknowledge it, (gracefully) accept their punishment and move on – and those who deny that their actions caused harm – exhibiting more concern for the impact on their career / status than the welfare of their competition partner.

    I have caused harm to my horse out of ignorance a number of times. How many horse(wo)men can say they haven’t ? I felt terrible, learned my lesson and vowed to do better. Cruelty presumes intent and a pattern of behavior…

    There is so much potential for good with the internet — so much potential for sharing and support. Why is it increasingly more common to be appalled by the lack of empathy and humanity that seems to dominate social media?

  13. “The strange thing is that no one ranting is actively defending cruelty to horses so it’s a one-sided scream into the ethers.”

    “This week I got accused of supporting horse abuse because I was appalled by a thread of hate-filled comments on social media. It isn’t that I don’t share their disappointment. It’s just that rage against each other doesn’t help horses.”

    I gather this post is about the recent wide-spread scandal at the European Dressage Championships? Blood and elimination everywhere you turn – for lack of a better way to put it.

    I feel obligate to kindly push back at the first sentence I have quoted from your blog . . . There is a plethora of people that ARE defending these riders and the “abuse” that led to their eliminations. Comments like ” the horse was just stressed and bit its tongue” or “the horse shied into the spur of the rider and made itself bleed” or “such and such a rider loves their horses and spends lots of money on them, they would never intentionally make them bleed . . .” To that last “defense” we can respond “probably not,” and their lies the rub with abuse – just because it isn’t intentional doesn’t mean it’s not happening and it most certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong . . . When you kill someone, but don’t intentionally kill someone, you still go to prison for involuntary manslaughter – actions have consequences – it is the only way that societies can exist durably . . .

    RE: the explosion on the internet about abuse and the observation that “It’s just that rage against each other doesn’t help horses.” Well again, a kind push-back . . . There is rage because riders are finally being eliminated for . . . well . . . abusing their animals – it’s a rather new phenomena and as it’s a highly expensive sport . . . people gettin mad about it, really mad – ragey mad even . . . change is not always smooth and enforcement of rules apparently isn’t either . . . Horses are victims in this situation – victims without a voice. Yes, anti-abuse “keyboard warriors,” as they are not-so-fondly known as, are taking to the internet with rage. Why you might ask? Well, because the horses can’t – plain and simple. Horses can’t scream in pain (well they can, but their mouths are cranked shut so tightly that they can’t even swallow, so the rest is difficult as well one would imagine). They’ve also learned that the pain increases if they fight the rider, so they don’t . . . They could eject the rider, but again, more pain . . . vicious circle. Rage against abuse is a CORRECT, TRUE, JUST and even, dare I write it, an OBLIGATORY emotion – if you don’t feel rage at the sight of abuse there is something fundamentally and morally wrong with you . . .

    Rage is what gets riders suspended. Rage is what loses riders their sponsors. Rage is what loses riders their owners and horses to ride. Rage is what enlightens the world to what other types of cruelty exist in the horse world beyond horse racing, PMU mare farms, big-lick walkers and the general slaughter house horrors.

    Rage defends horses when they cannot defend themselves . . .

  14. Thank you for addressing this issue that divides horse communities at the expense of “unhelping” horses. I attend Summits, local horse meetings, discussions on wild and feral horses and whether or not they can be called that legally, scientifically, or other euphemistic terms, free roaming, unwanted, ownerless, sentient beings and the list goes on. People are viscous and mean spirited to each other in the name of the horse. At the end of the day I ask my self “How has this human interaction helped the horse?” Not one word has protected a horse, fed him for another day, given him safety or security. People leave angry, frustrated, humiliated, and gathering venom for the next time. Yet I still hold the space for “the next time”, because as long as there is a next time, something might shift. And in that shift, we may actually move in unison and creat a web of safety for our horses in our man made world. I love your contrary yet sensible views!

  15. Think globally, act locally. Left over from the 60’s….but still holds true today. And ACT is the operative word… You’re right, tears and vitriol do not help. Give that old horse a home; do what you can, THAT is helping. Thanks for another thought-provoking message.

  16. Appreciate your views shared – as always.
    Your thoughts have me wondering if all the various arm-chair criticisms were turned into positive action such as letter writing to the governing institutions perhaps the evidence of concern world-wide would become more obvious to those who have some control over what horsemanship/training/equine performance qualities get rewarded and an impetuous for change initiated?

    • I wonder if it’s ever happened? I do believe that I see a difference in people and their horses in the work that I do. Not as much as I’d like, but so much more than before. Thanks B.

  17. Here here! Here here! Here here Anna! We’ve all made mistakes with horses out of compassionate ignorance or passionate anger toward bad human behavior in the interactions with horses, but I agree we have to take action one horse at a time. A post brain injury rider waiting for her lesson today watched me shower my young horse off after a ride and out of the blue she said, “you have a nice way about you.” Maybe that’s the best we can do. Have a nice way about us when we interact with both horse and human. I always learn something from your words Anna.

  18. Girl, girl, you have such wisdom!
    “The problem with speaking in extremes is that it damages everyone, the ones ranting and the ones trying to make a positive change. It’s like parents name calling each other in front of the children, the stink of anger leaves a residue on us, we are smaller for it. It diminishes us just a bit in the eyes of our kids, our horses, our friends.

    Which might be worth it if it worked, but when was the last time you saw anyone volunteer improvement through public ridicule? Is your own moral superiority or expertise enhanced by name-calling another? Doesn’t spewing hate on social media leave a bad taste in all our mouths?

    Can we get past the cheap talk of loving horses, the cheap behaviors that only put more ill will out into the world? Horses need advocates. There are enough haters already. It’s when we are able, as a species of thinking animals, to rise above fighting and lift our collective consciousness, that real change happens.

    The flat truth is that our guilt doesn’t help either. We need to find solidarity with each other, not because of adversity but from commonality. Whether we are famous or first-time owners, we are all students of the horse and works in progress. But our greatest challenge might be showing other humans the understanding and tolerance we strive to show our horses.”

    Wow. You certainly speak for the horse and for the humans.
    What I find most disheartening among the haters is the lack of compassion and forgiveness – for being human. For making mistakes and owning up to them. Apparently, one is branded for life for having committed them. Where is the moving forward and allowing for a different choice?

    We have a long way to go, but you say you have seen a change. You give me hope.
    Thank you.

  19. “Now might be the most important time of all.” Now is important because horse sport is a very expensive pastime, also a time when horses no longer have to work for a living. Lots of people getting into it with no background. I have seen some dreadful things, but somehow rarely speak out.

    Back in 1999 I was a spectator at a local dressage competition. As I was leaving, a young woman had come out of the arena heading amongst the trailers, outrageously disappointed, savaging her horse’s mouth as punishment. I was kinda busy riding one and leading one, (they were my transport, both out for the exercise), and she was lucky I wasn’t on foot, just called out “Hey! Take it easy!” Too late for that horse, and a rider not fit to be on one. But what can you say? She needed empathy, a sit down and chat, the horse needed sympathy, I might have helped her deal with her issues, but no, I rode on. Oh, I wanted to stop, sit her down with a cuppa, undress her horse, care for and console it, while endeavouring to explain things to her nicely. Doesn’t work like that. Mind your own business!

    4 years ago I watched as a coloured youngster was auctioned in a killing sale, his mouth very damaged on the off side. Said he could be ridden but it wasn’t recommended. 2 years later I observed, on the same show-ground, a man seriously abusing a horse, fighting and jabbing with the off rein. Here, I am sure, was the culprit, still doing it. What does it take? I walked away, not wishing to get involved as a recent “blow in” to the district. I can get in enough trouble without looking for it. This is Australia, its rough out in the bush. But why is it we walk away?

    Anna, your wise words are very important, thank you for this post.

  20. So much is said here; and it’s not just about horses. We need to find comminality in times of adversity. HEART HEART LOVE!

  21. I’ve seen the nearly-dead, lying and dying in fields long forgotten, and built cases for prosecutors so that those souls could have some measure of justice, some level of peace in knowing, in some way, that someone really did care. It’s the kind of work that leaves no soft landing for those of us who gave it their all. It’s the kind of work that invites judgement, not always complimentary, from both sides of the fence. I’m not sure our community of those who claim to “love” really understand the depth of commitment such painful “love” requires. One thing is certain, there is no recipe, no GPS coordinates, for walking away from hate. One must simply make that choice, and run with it. Much like our horses do. Nice post, my friend.

  22. You are so right and all levels. When I see abuse I do something about it. Whether it is educating the owner or offering help to change the situation. I’ve seen a lot of abuse And I try to speak kindly to the owners and tell them what I could do to help them address the problem. A horse I went to go look at that was being sold for cheap The feet were horrible and I asked nicely when the last time the horses feet were trimmed and he said well he tries to do it twice a year! A guy had money or appeared to by seeing his expensive home And acreage. He just didn’t understand about horses and what they needed. He had had the horse for 10 years. The horse had Scalding From diarrhea that was all over the horses behind. And there were other things that I don’t even remember but I offered to help clean off the behind with nice warm water to get that clean and put ointment. On it .I asked him what type of hay he was feeding and he was feeding alfalfa.I suggested a nice grass hay instead.I was going to purchase the horse just because I wanted to get it away from him but he gave it to a neighbor instead. At least he doesn’t have it anymore. Thank goodness

    • Thanks Heather… and it’s odd. I have heard this same thing in similar circumstances, at the last moment the horse is given away or sold. I wonder what that’s about??

  23. Timely Anna, as this week I’ve seen horses wandering on Common Land, and they are suffering from the effects of a long drought. One footfall after the other appears to take all their focus. I’m in process of finding out more about them…. it appears they’ve been dumped and the neglect long term is horrible. A bale or two of hay in this case certainly isn’t the solution…. what is certain, is having seen them, I cannot let the matter rest…

  24. Your 2 horses in the above pic look just like my two!! I did a double take.

    But as to the blog, you are right; we hate our “shadows” most and want to put lots of distance between it and ourselves. “Shadows” are those parts of ourselves that we wish to disown (in Jungian terms). It is harder to own our own iniquities and rather than judge, try to help.

  25. Well said. I grow tired of seeing all of the mean things being said and just go about my own business of doing what I can to help. Thank you for your words of wisdom.

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