Do you ever get haunted by a situation where you wish you had said something? Mine was 18 months ago. As I drove away from a lesson, I pulled over to check my messages, facing a riding arena where a roping event was going on. It was a perfect summer night and riders were warming up. There was some light bantering passed around, followed by good-natured laughing. The sort of group I just love.
Suddenly one of the riders went nuts. He exploded into a spurring, rein-jerking mess. His horse pinned his ears flat as the rider pulled him backwards, ramming the shank bit hard, metal on bone, against his jaw, almost the entire length of the arena. Then he jerked the horse’s front end around and backed him to where they started and then did the whole thing again… and again. The rider’s spurs said forward and his vicious hands said backward. The horse had a cable tie-down on and was totally trapped, he had no direction to go. The horse couldn’t get any relief from the bit, he couldn’t rear, he couldn’t even breathe. Whatever the rider thought he was correcting was lost in the pain.
I was in a speechless in my truck. I used to feel this kind of helpless as a kid when things got violent, hoping someone would stop it. What if I walked over to the arena and asked him to stop? I was old enough to be his mother but I didn’t think he would have any more respect for me than his horse. He might even double down on the poor horse. We’ve all witnessed something like this.
Then I noticed riders in the arena had gone silent. No more laughing or bantering, no sound except for the rage of this rider, now halted. Even at this distance, I could see the horse’s arched back quivering, his nose behind the vertical–between his knees, and his flanks tight and heaving.
The other horses were all walking now, tensely, as far from the fight as they could get. The riders each looking down and steering clear. Surely someone riding would speak to him. Or at the very least, let their feelings be known by dismounting and leaving the arena–refusing to ride with this jerk.
Nothing but a shared awkward embarrassment. Silence equals consent.
I’ve thought so much about this event. What could I have done? Bad horsemanship isn’t illegal. Neither is losing your temper. There was no blood. It’s a free country.
And what about those neighbors down the road whose thin animals are out in the winter weather with nothing to eat? Are water tanks empty? Are puppy mills okay with you?
Well, the FBI has an opinion. Starting next year, animal cruelty will be added as a Group A offense and a “crime against society.” *pause for applause* (google here.)
Are they doing that to appease us bleeding hearts who like horses? No. Research has shown repeatedly that animal abuse and domestic abuse frequently go hand in hand. If you beat an animal, you are much more likely show violence to people as well. The FBI feels animal abuse should be seen on level with crimes like murder and assault. Uniform crime reports will be filed to aid in research and also have an inter-state paper trail. Laws are changing.
Domestic violence was part of my concern about that rider. Should we pay more attention, maybe speak up and help him? Or should we wait to act shocked later when he shows up on the news? Is there a positive way to be a good neighbor here?
Which brings me to my next can of worms–being an animal advocate. We advocates have a pretty unflattering public image and that adds to the problem. Some of us are so emotional that we come across as whiny and unstable.
“I just don’t understand how a person could treat a kitten this way,” followed by sobs and phlegm might be your honest response, but it doesn’t necessarily help if your emotions run to histrionics and betray your message. It becomes more about you than the kitten.
Other animal advocates are filled with rage, threatening to burn down barns or use their guns. If they catch the perpetrator, they vow they will torture him as he tortured animals. Death threats are thrown around like confetti. Really? Isn’t that a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, even if it is honest?
In either extreme, the passion is real and I applaud that. I also believe that the messenger can poison the message, both with the authorities and the general public. No one is inspired by the lunatic fringe. There, I said it.
In my opinion, an animal advocate has to be able to control emotions within themselves that abusers have obviously not controlled. Good riders know that there is no place for emotions in the saddle–and good advocates should hold the same standard. In simple terms, we have to be better than abusers if we want our message to be heard. We have to have faith in our species to perceive the abuse without us pouring gasoline on it.
There are all kinds of reasons to look away from abuse and not get involved. Hundreds of reasons to bite your tongue and not report. And only one reason to stand up in the silent crowd and speak up for those without a voice. It is simply the right thing to do.
Please report abuse. Call the sheriff’s department. If you want to be anonymous, Crime Stoppers. Or notify a local rescue organization and ask them to investigate. Call the equine facility or show management and let them know that it isn’t okay with you to see that level of aggression towards a horse, even if it is legal!
Don’t kid yourself, there is an element of danger involved in reporting. Be safe, but also don’t let the craziness make you crazy. Don’t let your voice be silenced because of other people’s emotions, or your own.
Remember that silence equals consent. And it is consent to a world of things beyond starving a dog or jerking a horse around.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
A proud founding member, along with other strong voices, of Horse Advocates of Colorado. We are committed to bringing civil discourse and steady pressure to horse welfare issues. On the web here and on Facebook here. Join us.