Sunday, 10 June 2018

A Question of Horses and Ethics

[content note: animal death, mentioned throughout. Detailed discussion is flagged within text]

Yesterday (9th June) I went to Bramham Horse Trials. It’s an international event with a number of competitions going on but the main events are the CCI3*, CCI3* u25 and CIC3*. These are top level1 Eventing competitions with highly qualified horses and riders in. For a horse nerd like me it’s super exciting. Even if you aren’t a horse nerd, like the friend accompanying me, it’s a fun day out. You get to see the horses being ridden cross country, in a gorgeous English country park setting, taking on some pretty impressive jumps and obstacles.

Overall it was a great day out. I didn’t quite get the experience I wanted due to my chronic health issues: I had been struggling in the run up to it and had to hire a mobility scooter on the day to get around. Both my health and the scooter meant that haring around the cross country course wasn’t on the cards for me. But just being in that environment (and on a lovely summer’s day) was great. I got to see gorgeous horses, event riders I admire, talk about horse things, be surrounded by Good Dogs look at fancy horsewares and drink pink lemonade.

Image shows to black and white photos side by side. In the first is me wearing a wide brimmed black hat, black T-shirt with a hand print on and glasses. The second picture is a view of the control panel of a mobility scooter with show jumping arena int he background.

As an aside can I note how pleased I am that there is a company that specialises in day hire of mobility scooters at these events. I honestly wouldn’t have been able to go had it not been for them and I know I wasn’t alone in that2.

The day however did have a low point which I absolutely can’t ignore, even if I wanted to. Those of you who follow equestrian sports or eventing may have already heard that a horse died at the event: Second Supreme ridden by Chuffy Clarke.

A horse dying at a three day event is always tragic. Thankfully these days it is pretty rare but that only goes to make it more tragic. Being at the event where it happened lends a certain poignancy. Being on the course and stood at the fence only a few feet away from it is heartbreaking.

And that’s where I was. One of a handful spectators stood on the landing side of fence 24 who saw Second Supreme stumble and fall and the response that followed.

What happened

The following paragraphs are going to explain what I saw in some quite blunt terms. This is as much for my own catharsis as it is to try and explain to people what happened and to help understand the implications.

Coming up to the fence Second Supreme (known as Ed on his yard) was lacking some impulsion – the oomph that helps make a good jump – was lacking, but this fence was near the end of the course so it wasn’t surprising when it looked like he needed a big effort to get over the fence. But the landing was just, not right. It’s hard to put a finger on it but it was just slightly awkward. As the pair tried to move away Clarke did her best to “pick him up again” and get him moving forward, but he just wasn’t moving right. His left hind leg wasn’t stepping properly and the foot was bending incorrectly, and turning under instead of down. He took a few stumbling steps as Clarke tried to get him moving and then starting with that odd left hind his legs just buckled and he fell on to his side. 

Clarke extracted herself and took a few steps away looking shaken and confused (it’s standard to step away from a fallen horse as they can flail a bit with their legs as they stand up and it can be dangerous for people on the ground). Ed didn’t attempt to right himself though, he lay there, his head down breathing heavily. At this point the stewards, one of the on-course vets and Clarke were attending to the horse. The tack was removed, he had cool water poured over him, and examinations began. Clarke was now holding her horses head in her lap and looked to be in shock, she was clearly distraught and had people looking after her (I don’t know if they were friends or course stewards, though I know her team rallied around quickly coming from the stables and finish line). 

At this point the vets had already erected a portable screen but from our position we could still see. Ed was now lying very quietly with visibly laboured breathing: it was likely a sedative had been administered. Another vet had joined and the equine ambulance (an adapted horse trailer) had pulled up. It was clearly very serious. There were whispers that the horse had gone into shock or had a heart attack, which was far more serious than the broken bone or sprain we had “hoped for” with the initial stumble. As the second screen was erected around the scene those of use not involved waited, subdued a stark contrast to those who arrived cheery licking ice creams fresh from other fences and who didn’t know what had happened. We heard a few huffs of breath from Second Supreme and then nothing but muted voices, and then the winch. I think we all knew what the result was even if we didn’t want to admit it. As the screens were lowered and the ambulance drove away Clarke was led by friends and family to a waiting car.

You may ask why I stayed and watched it, you may even think I am gruesome or insensitive for doing so. First I want to make clear that this was not morbid curiosity, rubber necking or delighting in other’s misery. It happened right in front of us, literally feet away. When these things happen a sort of bubble is created centring around around the incident and including those who have been impacted or involved some way. Simply due to proximity my friend and I were in that bubble. Leaving that bubble is difficult. Though we were not in a position to help, aside from the fact that there were better qualified stewards and medics on hand I was on the mobility scooter and not especially fast moving, we had still been some how caught up in the event. We weren’t alone. There a few others near by who were similarly frozen in place. When something like that happens walking away can seem like a callous act, as if you are shedding yourself of any association. I couldn’t leave somebody who was hurting. For my own anxiety too I had to see it through I know the outcome – even once home I was scouring twitter and equestrian news sites for information.

At the time of writing the cause of death was given as “unknown suspected to benatural causes” according to the official statement from Bramham.

Now you know what happened you may understand why my response to the whole event has been a bit muted despite other highlights. But it’s also given me a lot to think on and it’s a very difficult subject to wrestle with.

Chuffy Clarke and Second Supreme competing in the CIC3* at Barbury 2017. Picture by Peter Nixon

Knowing the risks

Almost everybody competing and working in horse sports love horses in general and especially the horses they ride or care for. Therefore loosing a horse in any circumstances is hard. As with any activity, there are risks and we know that death of the horse is one of the risks, especially in high stress events like cross country. Now there are things we can do to mitigate these risks – the horse is trained carefully and only asked to do the harder courses when they are physically fit and shown they are capable to do so. They have excellent veterinary and other health care year round and the events have vets on site. 

A major component of three day eventing are the trot-ups: before each phase of competition the horse is trotted in front of a team of senior vets who look for lameness or other signs of potential problems and given a brief examination. If there is any suspicion of issues they are held and given a more thorough examination before being able to carry on with the competition. If a horse is competing in a CCI3* you know that it is fit and healthy enough to be there and has been prepared. This reduces the risk of incident and death. Of course mistakes can and do happen, but again these are mitigated as much as possible – a fit horse is less likely to stumble, a good line into the jump is safer, there are safe options if you horse isn’t jumping well, the very design of fences has changed in the recent decades to reflect better understanding of risk and safety.

Horses are also surprisingly fragile creatures. I have known of people who have sadly lost their horse after an accident while it was out grazing. A horse was put to sleep at a competition last year after falling while walking back to the stable and sustaining a major break.

We know that these things happen.

It’s very difficult to deny though, that sometimes we put them in situations where they are more at risk. Though I am strongly of the opinion that most horses competing in cross country genuinely enjoy it, it still isn’t a natural activity for them and they are there because we choose to train and ride them in these physically intense manners.

This is something that is hard to rationalise both as an animal lover and as a vegan.

Ethics, horses and being vegan

Part of my personal ethics behind being vegan are to do with the exploitation of animals. Putting animals into unnatural and often harmful situations for human gain is unethical. And yet I ride horses and enjoy watching equestrian sports. It’s can be difficult to wrestle with that at the best of times but when faced with tragedy in such a visceral way I think it’s important to stop and think about these things.

So obviously we can look at the incident itself. Was it an act of abuse, neglect or cruelty? I know there are some people who would say that any horse riding but particularly cross country is inherantly abusive or cruel to the horse. I am not one of those people. I think some riders and owners can be cruel and abusive but I don’t think the riding or the sport itself is the cruel thing. I think horses can and do enjoy it. I think it can be done safely and in a way which is not just not-bad but is actually beneficial to the horse if we consider their bodies as we would human athletes – we would rarely if ever accuse a top athlete in peek fitness of self harming for the training they do, in fact we often aspire to be more like them. In some ways we can apply this to well trained horses, they are in peak physical fitness. However like humans, once you start pushing the body or concentrating on competing you may be more susceptible to injuries. It’s not unknown that a lot of athletes sustain multiple and recurring injuries as a result of their training and competition, especially if there is a fixation on “being the best”.

This is where ethics come in to it and questions of informed consent. A human athlete can make decisions for themselves about if they think it is worth risking those injuries and if they are happy with what that might mean for their future a health. In the case of horse riding, it’s not the horse making that decision, we have to make it for them. Is it ethically sound for us to decide it’s ok to put horses into a position that risks their health and even life? Is it ok for us to make that decision when a horse may not know of the risks or the safety measures in place?
Additionally when the rider is injured or struggling they know if it’s ok to push on or if it’s time to stop (well most of the time). The horse can’t tell us. Even with some of the amazing bonds these horse and rider pairs have, as with Chuffy and Ed, and with all the practice of reading horse body language in the world they can’t just tell us if they are feeling a little off. Especially mid way around a cross country course. Did your horse clip a fence because he wasn’t paying attention or you asked him to take off a fraction late or is it a sign he’s starting to feel unwell? We don’t know. We just don’t.

Chuffy Clarke and "Ed" Second Supreme. Photo by Ben Clark

For many riders, whatever their discipline whether they ride for pleasure or too compete, how much your horse trusts you is a big part of the bond and relationship they have with their horse. It’s all about trust. You ask the horse to do things and trust they will listen and not endanger you, they trust you to negotiate them through tricky situations that their tiny horse brains can’t deal with. Sometimes that’s walking past a scary looking wheelbarrow in the corner of the arena, and sometimes that’s going over a big jump and ditch. They trust us to look after them, not harm them and get them through scary or tough situations.
That’s a lot of responsibility in the owner or rider’s hands and it is something that has to be taken into account when we make our risk assessments or decide how, when and where we ride horses.

So back to the vegan question and ethics. As noted earlier a lot of vegans believe that no horse riding is ethical at all (or carriage/trap driving). They class it as subjugation of the animal: of making the animal do things against their will or without consent. Now, as touched on earlier there are ways we could say that we are not doing things against the horses will: we can read body language and behaviour and you get a feeling for the horses moods, likes and dislikes. I would be lying though if I said that we always respected those. Much in the same way a parent may say “I know you don’t want to go to school, but you have to go to school.” A rider may say “I know you don’t want to leave the paddock but you have to come and get tacked up.”. Additionally there are some vegan’s and animal rights activists who argue that any tack, but especially bridles and bits are cruel and abusive. Now obviously there are times when a bit or bridle can be used in a cruel or abusive way but that is more down to the individual rider than the nature of bridles and bits in general. But do horses like being bridles and bitted? Well that’s a loaded question and seems to be very dependant on context. I am not going to get into the whole debate about bitting that has been running in perpetuity in the horse world but I would say that there are some horses who behave very differently with and without bits and not always in the ways you may expect3. Suffice to say I don’t subscribe to the “bridles are bad and people who use them are bad” thought.

If you feel this is getting a bit long and rambly, you are right and I apologise but I hope you are seeing some of the ethical concerns I have been wrestling with over the past day.

What next?

Let’s look at some of the implications and what this sort of incident actually means.

Firstly regarding the specific incident there will be an investigation in to it.
That does not implicate Chuffy Clarke in any wrong doing it is simply a necessary process to go through as part of the ever evolving risk assessments of the sport. The investigation will be carried out by one or more of the governing bodies of the sport (the FEI and British Eventing) as well as the Bramham Horse Trials organisational team including their senior veterinarians. Things that will be looked at include the course design (designed by well respected rider and trainer Ian Stark), if there was anything missed in the vet checks, the overall health of the horse (including an autopsy) and, how the ride had been up until that point including Clarke’s riding.

It may be that one or more people made a mistake or did something wrong, from stewardship to vets to rider, that triggered or lead to the incident. If there was a mistake it may be that that in itself wasn’t enough to have lead to the death of a horse or to anything being have done differently. They may decide that something was at fault that could have reduced risk or prevented or mitigated the incident. In those cases they will then decide if any punitive action is needed4 or if it is simply a hard lesson learned and that it won’t be repeated.

Clarke is undoubtedly going through a very tough time and will be taking her own time to think over what happened as she comes to terms with the loss. If there was rider error then it is hard to imagine what tougher punishment could be doled out than having to be a part of a tragic accident and suffer that grief. Even without rider error, it is an astoundingly difficult thing to deal with.
She will be going through her own process of considering ethics and risk assessments, but from a very different point of view to me. Her information is different and her priorities as well as responsibilities: even if we were all to mutually decide that horse riding is unethical and we should all stop right away, she still has other horses who need exercising and looking after properly (and no, the answer isn’t simply turn them all loose) she has a responsibility to her horses if nobody else.

Additionally any investigation of this nature gives us more data to plug into our risk assessments. If there is any inkling that some action could have reduced the risk of such and accident then that’s going to be factored in to any future course design, rules and events. It’s unlikely that any one incident, even as tragic as this would result in a sudden or dramatic change to how things are done, but it would be added to our cumulative knowledge to help improve things in the future or to make small but necessary adjustments.

Now what it means to me personally. What does all this amount to? I don’t know. I do ride horses, I do not currently compete in any discipline or own my own horse. That in itself limits the impact. Do I believe I can be a vegan and still ride horses. Yes, I think so. I think it’s important to fight for best practice to be minimally invasive, campaign for better regulation and call out genuine abusive practices when you see it. I think it’s important to me to learn to ride well in a way that puts minimal stress on the horse. I think it’s important for me to learn methods which don’t rely on out of date or harsh methods.
I think we can ride horses in an ethical manner. But I do think that has to be done with consciousness and care and that we do reassess what we are doing periodically, even if there hasn’t been a tragic accident to prompt you.

I am not currently sure what I feel about eventing and cross country. That’s going to take some more processing and I think some more research. Though I ride I am not an eventer and I don’t know the ins and outs of it like other people. Learning and understanding those things is going to be key to making a decision on how I feel about eventing and how that relates to me as a rider and as a vegan.

Horses, just like any other animal should have the right to be treated fairly and not to be forced into activities which put them at undue risk or harm. That remains important to me.

Photograph of me riding a chunky brown and white horse. They are in an indoor arena.

Most of all right now I am feeling very sad that I witnessed something so tragic and I know that that is nothing compared to what Chuffy Clarke and her family and team must be going through. I can only hope that they have the time and space they need to recover and process their thoughts.

1OK almost. There are also 4* events that are bigger and tougher, but there are only a handful of them worldwide
2Mobility Scooters were provided at the event by
3A good video summing up some of the issues can be found in this youtube video by trainer Shelby Dennis
4The FEI has a mixed history of how much impact their sanctions and official warnings actually have with some riders being known repeat offenders. This is an ongoing area of contention but things are improving and it does not mean that there is no repercussions for riders or others who do things wrong.

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