The question of “social license”—acceptance or approval granted to a particular group from the community at large—is all over the equestrian sphere at the moment. When our sports involve another living being who we presume to be willing to participate but who may be stressed or endangered by our activities, the question begins to arise as to whether what we are doing is “right,” “ethical,” or “acceptable.”
Veterinarian Dr. Shelley Onderdonk and her husband 10-goal polo player Adam Snow have been training and competing horses at the very top of international sport for decades. In their new book Winning with Horses, they explore the question of whether we can be simultaneously passionate about winning in an equestrian sport and about the welfare of horses. They say the answer is, Yes.
When it comes to the question of whether horses “enjoy” a sport, it is hard to say.
But let’s face it, your horse doesn’t wake up in the morning and think, Oooh, I can’t wait to jump that course perfectly or execute a flying change or win a polo play. He thinks, Where’s my food? But, especially in horses that are bred to perform a certain job, I believe that they are undeniably better off when they are doing what they have been bred to do.
Maybe it is just because I like to work, and I am anthropomorphizing. But let’s admit that one of life’s greatest hacks is exercise. For the mammalian brain, outdoor exercise checks all the boxes for building a healthy mind and body—true in the horse as much as in the human (see Gretchen Reynold’s The New York Times article from May 12, 2021, entitled “How Exercise May Help Us Flourish”). The body’s own feel-good hormones (endogenous endocannabinoids and beta-endorphins and enkephalins) increase their circulation and produce a cascade of positive effects, including lowering stress levels. So, you’re not going to convince me that not exercising a horse is doing it any favors.
But how do we know when to push and when to rest? Which factors come into the decision of whether or not to play/show/compete when the stakes are high? How do we conscientiously compete?
I believe we have to understand deep in our hearts that we have prepared everything we are capable of preparing, and then and only then will we feel confident that we are entitled to make demands upon our horses. We must start with a horse suited to the job at hand, trained appropriately (confident that he is only going to be asked to do things he is capable of), and given every chance to be at his physical best.
We also must ensure we are primarily using long-term thinking for the horse’s welfare versus short-term gain.
These ideas sound straightforward, but it is of course very complicated to achieve all of them (which is why we wrote a book about how to do it!). Any doubt that surfaces can put a rider off-track. I often hear concerns from clients who witness veterinary procedures on their horses, or reach a deeper level of understanding about a soundness issue of their horses, and from that time forward have difficulty putting their horses back to full work.
When questions lurk in the back of your mind about your preparation—“Did I cut short too many trot sets?” or “Did I jump high enough that last lesson?” or “Does the new feed give him enough energy?”—it can have a devastating impact on your confidence. Everything has to feel right before the competition begins.
At the professional, upper levels of any equine sport, I believe we as horse people have to acknowledge that everything can’t be pretty all the time. Unless we abolish horse sport altogether, we have to make peace with the fact that finding the perfect line between not pushing hard enough and over-pushing is not always possible without trial and error. No person who has ever been a competitive athlete themselves would disagree. You don’t achieve greatness without the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. Our horses need to train hard also. Doing it well is the key.
No discussion of winning is complete without considering the horse’s desire to win. Many books are written on sports psychology for the human athlete, but equestrians have to manage the psychology of the horse as well as their own! I find it fascinating to ponder how it varies among horses, and why. Is it different for mares, geldings, or stallions? Is it innate, so we can breed for it, or is it created, and thus we must train for it?
On gender: racehorse trainers certainly feel young colts are the most highly competitive; the vast majority of the top professional polo players prefer mares (about 95 percent of the top horses in polo are mares) for their drive and spirit. And male horses are traditionally castrated to enhance their tractability, which would seem to put geldings at a disadvantage in any equine sport where horses are in direct competition with each other.
But when it comes to a horse being in the ring on his own and really trying to do his best, perhaps it simply comes down to character—which can be both bred and trained. And once you’ve got it, treasure it and handle it with kid gloves.
This excerpt from Winning with Horses by Shelley Onderdonk, DVM, and Adam Snow is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).