SPCA condemns cruelty in elite Olympic sport

  • 26/07/2012

By Nikki Mandow

As New Zealand’s Olympic dressage hopeful Louisa Hill begins her final preparations for the games in London, cruelty allegations have hit this most elite of sports.

With less than two weeks before the opening ceremony, the SPCA has joined a group of the world’s most influential animal welfare organisations calling for the practice of excessive tightening of horses’ nosebands in dressage competitions to be outlawed – starting with the Olympics.

Vets say the hunt for a perfect performance (or at least perfect marks) has led many top dressage riders to crank their horses’ nosebands so tight the animals risk painful mouth ulcers, restricted blood flow and, in some cases, permanently deformed nasal bones.

Ironically this practice, referred to in the Australian Financial Review as “like torture for horses”,  happens because competition judges deduct marks when a horse opens its mouth – a sign, the rules say, the horse could be resisting its rider.

Because the tight nosebands stop the horses opening their mouths, the animals look as if they are happily obeying their riders, who therefore get extra marks for “submission”, says equine researcher Dr Paul McGreevy, professor of animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Sydney’s vet school and president of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES).

In fact, Dr McGreevy says, the horses are suffering. X-ray images of horses that have worn very tight nosebands show permanent damage to the nasal bones. Photos taken during competitions show horses with tongues “sporting a suspicious shade of blue”, most likely the result of reduced blood flow from the tight bands. Pictures from inside horses’ mouths show ulcers and other soft tissue damage consistent with trauma from the animal’s cheeks being clamped against its molar teeth and a noseband digging into its face, he says.

Along with top welfare and veterinary organisations in the UK, New Zealand, Australia and Denmark, Dr McGreevy is calling on the sport’s international governing body, the  Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), to urgently introduce a rule change requiring Olympic dressage officials to check horses’ nosebands before competitions.

Stewards already check for other equipment, such as illegal spurs.

“Over time, tight nosebands can effectively crush a horse’s head. This cannot be tolerated in the name of sport,” Dr McGreevy says.

 “Horses are the only animal in the Olympics. London 2012 organisers have to understand this is a cruel practice and needs to stop.”

Louisa Hill is New Zealand’s only Olympic dressage qualifier, on her horse Bates Antonello, although New Zealand also has a five-strong eventing team. The six Olympic equestrian events are taking place in London’s Greenwich Park between July 28 and August 9.

Dressage New Zealand rules officer Soo Wells says tight nosebands are “a quick fix” for training problems and the practice is unacceptable and unnecessary. She says nosebands can and should be policed by competition stewards under existing rules promoting the welfare of the horse.

However more than one top New Zealand dressage competition steward says without a specific  rule governing the amount of space there should be between a horse’s nose and its noseband, tightness is very hard to police.

“It is the exception, not the rule, but I have seen nosebands [in New Zealand competitions] I consider too tight,” one says. “However, there are no guidelines to go by as to how tight is too tight. The only time we can act is if it is really obvious a horse is in distress, or if there is an obvious sign, like blood. I would like to see a rule that gave us sure guidelines as to what is acceptable and what isn’t.”

The FEI considered the issue of tight nosebands at a recent meeting. However dressage director Trond Asmyr and veterinary director Graeme Cooke say there are no plans to introduce any change. The existing code of conduct states that “tack must be designed and fitted to avoid the risk of pain or injury”, and the FEI directors say this is enough.

“The FEI rules are clear and our officials do their best to ensure they are strictly applied... Nosebands as well as any bit or other item of saddlery likely to wound a horse is forbidden. Stewards officiating at FEI events [including the Olympics]... are briefed to check nosebands as well as bits.

“We would like to emphasise, however, that the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider.”

And there’s the rub. Top riders are campaigning hard against any rule change.  At a recent International Dressage Riders Club meeting many of the world’s best dressage riders – including UK Olympic dressage medal hopeful Carl Hester, veteran German Olympian Klaus Balkenhol and former Danish international Hasse Hoffmann – signed a letter protesting against compulsory noseband checks.

In a column in British magazine Horse and Hound, Hester said there were already too many checks being done on “persecuted” dressage riders.

But welfare experts believe the real reason many riders are against the checks is they are worried horses trained using the tight nosebands wouldn't perform as well if they were loosened. They say it’s more about points than persecution.

A rule change in New Zealand would need the support of riders, says Dressage New Zealand chairman Karen Trotter. “It would need to go through with a majority of delegates. All bar one delegate is a rider.”

At an international level, riders don’t need to formally endorse rule changes, the FEI’s Asmyr says, but if the riders don’t want it, it’s unlikely to be effective.

“The support of the riders is important as the main responsibility for the welfare of the horse rests with the rider.”

Although the FEI’s statute gives a commitment to “preserve and protect the welfare of the horse”, the organisation disbanded its welfare sub-committee in 2009, ISES says.  It also abandoned an earlier “two finger” rule for stewards to judge space under a noseband, saying it was too imprecise. Now there’s nothing.

At the FEI’s request, Dr McGreevy this week sent over a prototype “taper gauge” – a wedge the size of two adult fingers that the International Society for Equitation Science has developed. But the FEI says it won’t be considering the issue before the Olympics.

The sport of dressage, like the Olympic Games themselves, started in Ancient Greece. Ironically, the earliest writings about the (even then) elite sport show horse welfare was paramount. Xenophon (430 – 354 BC) insists riders must win their horses’ friendship and willing cooperation, because otherwise dressage training will have very little value, aesthetic or otherwise. Early images show dressage horses ridden without a noseband at all.

SPCA New Zealand executive director Bob Kerridge says his organisation has not had a lot of complaints on the issue of tight nosebands in this country. However he says he endorses the comments from sister organisations overseas.

“There is a potential there that we would see as of real concern.”

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