About a year ago I was standing at the warm up ring during a Saturday Night Lights grand prix at the Winter Equestrian Festival when a very well-known rider crashed through a warm-up fence.
The horse lost balance over the poles and fell to its knees before standing up, and the rider came harmlessly off the side. I think he landed on his feet.
Then I watched the rider grab the rein and kick his horse in the stomach, hard, two or three times. I was horrified. His trainer was standing right there, a ring steward was right there, I was right there, and not inconspicuously holding a very big camera lens. I had photographed the fall, actually, but stopped shooting when the kicking commenced.
The rider got back on and proceeded with his warm-up and carried on to compete in the ring. Nothing ever happened, even though it should have. I was properly upset on behalf of the horse, and thought long and hard about being the whistleblower in this particular incident. I even drafted up a rant about the whole thing. But in the end, out of fear and a little bit of cowardice, I did nothing.
I thought about that upsetting moment again this morning, when I came across the cold hard video evidence of rider Kevin Lemke beating his horse in the ring at Thermal (the Desert International Horse Park) about a month ago.
It almost wasn’t the six hard whacks he delivered to the horse that bothered me the most (or the fact that he tried to continue on and ran his horse through the first part of a double after being rung out by the announcer, sheesh.)
No, it was the glimpse of folks standing on the berm, silently watching Lemke as he carried on with his temper tantrum and the announcer spoke: “Unfortunately, elimination for excessive use of the stick.”
I’m sorry but the only unfortunate thing about that incident was the fact that the rider wasn’t instantly booed out of the ring.
I am not judging the people watching from the berm. I have also cowardly stood by. Who wants to draw attention to themselves in an already unfortunate situation? Most people do not, but therein lies the problem. By not calling out abuse, even when it’s right in front of our eyes, we as a community are tolerating it.
That’s especially unfortunate, as is US Equestrian’s penalty system. Lemke was issued a yellow warning card for abusive behavior. He will have to earn two more yellow cards within a three-month period to be subject to a fine or suspension and I shudder to think of what that looks like for any horse when its rider’s temper comes back out to play.
The USEF and the FEI are investigating the incident, but while they wade through their own red tape, PETA has gotten their hands on the video of Lemke beating his horse. Love PETA or hate them, you can’t deny that Lemke has served to them on a silver platter a slice of premium content for which to advance their agenda.
In the meantime, there is no consequence as swift as public shame, and until the people looking on from the berm are willing to publicly condemn this behavior out of the arena, it will continue in some form. We all need to be a bit braver about sticking our necks out—in real life, not just from behind a screen. I’m talking to myself here, also. Otherwise, we’re just serving up our own demise for PETA, and anyone else who cares more about saving face than speaking out.