The Issue with Consent

Sport/Working Horses – The Issue with Consent

I’m going to start by being very upfront on my position when it comes to this topic – I know this can be a heated issue with a number of aspects to consider. I’m not against the use of horses in sports or work, when done kindly and with careful and compassionate decisions made for the best of the horse. It does require education, empathy and a motivating factor for the humans to want to choose what is right for the horse (and not just for winning or completing the job). I am not against working/sporting horses, but I am an advocate for stronger regulations and better education for the well-being of the horses who work or participate in sporting events.

Gummy Bear – A life of labor, 12 years as a laborer, his disease + the work he did ended his life prematurely and created much undo suffering.

In the sport and working horse worlds we often see equines compared to human athletes and laborers, in regards to the physical damage and risks they might obtain – but we have one correlation that just doesn’t match up. The issue is with consent. Adult human athletes are able to understand that when they push their body to these extremes it comes with great risk. Damage comes naturally at these extreme athletic and work levels. Whether it’s working on pavement, pulling carriages in the city, the repeat concussion on the legs can weaken and damage the legs and joints. There are sports which require the horse to jump extreme heights, run at extreme speeds, pull large weights, perform gymnastically difficult maneuvers, and so on, pushing the body and mind to new reaches. This takes a toll on the body and mind of the individual, and while amazing to watch and participate with an equine partner, there is regular damage that comes with this work and great risk as well. These jobs and sports come at risk of not just career, but also life-ending injuries.

We watch with great admiration as human athletes push themselves to the limits for their passion and our entertainment. But adult human athletes are able to understand the damage, consequences, and huge risks they put themselves in when they participate in these events. When a human runner, long jumper, basketball player, football player, and so on participate in their events they do so knowing the daily impact it has on their body, with trainers and doctors advising their progress and steps. They also comprehend the big risks they put themselves in, whether they get hurt and end their careers, remain with a life-altering injury, or even the risk of death. We’ve seen the tragedy of human athletes losing their career or their lives for the passion of their sports.

The problem is, horses may (and often do) have the same passion for their sports that human athletes do – they are bred for their job, the passion is born in them (often, with some exceptions). Horses, however, can’t understand that running at high speeds many days in a row can put themselves at risk. They can’t understand that they may fall, break a leg, or die. They can’t understand that this excess work is gradually degrading their joints and that they may live their older years in great pain. They don’t understand that giving it their all this time, may be the end of their well-being. So while they may have the same passion for their jobs and sports as human competitors, but they can’t understand the risks they are signing up for. They can’t sign the contract, they can’t read the small print. They can’t give their knowledgeable consent to participate.

My husband is a High School Football coach in our small town – I am watching the revolution in childhood sports firsthand. We look at human athletes who have trained their whole lives to be incredible football players, soccer players, gymnasts, and so on – in order to compete with the best they need to begin at a young age. But we run into this same problem again – children can’t give their knowledgeable consent. A child who has only lived 10 years can’t understand what it means to have a life-long injury, the risk of paralysis, or even death. damaged knees may not just stop a football career, but may become a physical problem for life, seriously damaging the quality and future for that child. With parent and social pressure to participate in sports many children feel compelled to give it their all, without full understanding of the risk. Their desire to participate may be honest and intense, but they aren’t capable of understanding what may occur, due only to their age and limited life experiences. If you’ve only ever scraped your knee, you can’t imagine the pain of a broken bone or even a life-altering injury. Repeat concussions and head injuries is a serious problem in many youth sports, leading to life-long consequences.

What sports can look like when fun, safety, and consent are taken into consideration

Yes, it’s true, injuries and even death can occur to a horse or human who was born sick, or just had a tragic accident while going about their happy day to day. These events are tragedies – they do happy. It’s a terrible truth that even the most loved and cared for horse can be seriously injured or die because of any random event. Lightning could strike, a horse could fall, colic happens, infection happens, it can be terrible. There is a risk just in living life. But we can’t compare these risks with those of animals who are bred and trained (often with force-based techniques) to participate in not just regular activity, but activities proven to be dangerous. We can’t even begin to compare the rate of damage, career-ending or even life-ending injuries from a horse by a true accident compared to those who participate in extreme sports of jobs. The numbers are astronomical. When we compare this with human children, we know that playing in sports is normal and acceptable, but we would not ask our child to participate in a sport we believe is dangerous. Kind parents wouldn’t encourage their child to push themselves beyond their physical and emotional well-being just to get the win. They wouldn’t sign their child up for a sport that puts them at great risk. Sports are being regulated and controlled to provide more extreme safety measures to protect children. These same measures need to be taken for our animals.

What “Work” can look like when fun, safety, and consent are taken into consideration

Football is undergoing a revolution. Parents are stopping their children from competing. Due to this, many states are changing the rules so certain ages can only participate in flag football, learning the rules and techniques without the impact. Even still by highschool students are competing with full impact, freshman are often substantially out-sized and out-matched by seniors, their growth stages and maturity levels are at their most intense, their desire to compete can convince students to play through serious injuries, hiding their injury so they can continue to compete. Sometimes just for the love of the sport, and sometimes for the promise of the better future (and money) this sport may hold for them if they do well. Horses have the same trouble – not that the promise of money is going to make them want to compete, but their riders may. Their riders may mask injuries with painkillers, may push further than they ought to, may ask for just a bit more than the horse is really capable of, in love of the sport, in desire to win, and the many benefits that come from it.

Because of our major issue with consent the child and animal sport worlds need a major upheaval, in regards to safety and well-being of each individual participating. This means not only do we need more strict regulations protecting the participants, more care and participation from educated professionals like trainers and veterinarians, but also more motivators for riders, owners and competitors to actually comply with these regulations. One of my students wanted to bring our donkeys to a just for fun donkey show. But our donkeys had never traveled, with only a few days to prepare, our donkeys were not able to get on the trailer and participate in the event without great undo stress. The child who wanted to participate was disappointed – but we still went and she brought her life-size stuffed donkey to decorate our booth (where we were teaching about clicker training). The judge came and told her that she could have her stuffed donkey participate in one of the events, they won “most creative costume” as her donkey “Squinky” was a stuffed animal dressed as a real donkey! They child had just as much fun (if not more) without undo stress on our real animals. While I’m not suggesting we replace show jumpers and dressage riding with stuffed animals, we do need incentive put in place for the humans to choose when to NOT participate with their horses. There needs to be a benefit for those who choose what is right for their horse, like this wonderful judge did at this just for fun donkey show. We have also seen a great increase in “Hobby Horse” competitions where people rider toy horses. The human competitors continue to enjoy their sport, without putting living animals at risk.

Oh but, if we didn’t have sports and work for horses to do people would stop having them?! Well maybe, but they would also stop suffering for our entertainment. Horses will continue to do what we breed them for. If we continue to breed and compete more extreme athletes, horses will continue to participate and be put at risk by extreme athletics – while we could breed more overall healthy horses, balancing their well-being with the sport we participate in. We can also balance out the sports with regulations to be more fun and less physically extreme. We have done so a great deal in the dog world. We have rules an parameters around dog agility, pulling events, herding events, even showmanship. These changes made to each competition (while still greatly imperfect) continue to better the safety and well-being of our beloved dogs. Allowing us all to enjoy our sports of old, but kept more fun, safe, and appropriate for our friends who are unable to consent to the risks of extreme sports.