Current Compulsory Use of Double Bridle, Spurs at Top Dressage Under Spotlight at FEI Meeting, Dressage Committee Willing to Change, Rider, Trainer Clubs Not
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Oct. 17, 2022
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Compulsory use of double bridle and spurs at the highest levels of international dressage will be under the spotlight at next month’s FEI–International Equestrian Federation–annual meeting that will consider a report by an independent commission recommending the devices should be optional.
The FEI’s Dressage Committee says it “would be ready to consider making the use of spurs optional.” But the international dressage riders and trainers clubs strongly opposed change, saying in a joint letter: “While it might be tempting to make these items optional as a ‘peace offering’ to critics in the hope that they will be satisfied that approach is incorrect and naive. But more importantly giving in to unwarranted or ignorant criticism is practically and ethically wrong.”
Coincidentally, the European Equestrian Federation on Monday issued a statement from its president, Theo Ploegmakers, noting a research paper by the World Horse Welfare and the University of Nottingham in England with the warning: “Times have changed. Where sports federations used to arrange their policy, and therefore their rules, entirely indoors, that is no longer possible. There is a need for transparency and awareness of the wider society that we know as ‘Social Licence’.” Among other issues, it said, the equestrian community is “confronted with philosophical questions such as whether we have a right to ride horses and whether the horse wants to participate in our sport, or if it is forced to do so.”
Complaints from within and outside the sport at the use of double bridles and spurs as well as tight nosebands have become widespread in recent years. Many countries, including the United States, do not require double bridles in national Grand Prix.
The report from the independent Equine Ethics and Wellbeing Commission recommending double bridle and spurs should not be compulsory in dressage Grand Prix and tightness of nosebands should be harmonized across disciplines with an approved measuring device will be made to the FEI General Assembly in Cape Town, South Africa Nov. 12. The report has been sent to national federations ahead of the meeting.
Dressage is the only discipline governed by the FEI that makes double bridles mandatory at Grand Prix level only. Spurs are required at all levels in international dressage except for ponies and children’s divisions.
The Dressage Committee was reported as pointing out that “using spurs allows for a use of refined and discreet aids and that allowing to ride without spurs may lead to images of strong use of legs on horses, which is not in line with the general principles of the discipline.”
The letter by the international riders and trainers clubs gave a detailed explanation of the uses of the double bridle and spurs to achieve a high level of skill and training as required at the top level of the sport. But went on:
“Proper use of the double bridle demonstrates the ultimate in expertise. Similarly spurs give the rider the opportunity to give subtle and refined leg aids. And again, there are currently significant welfare measures in place; specifications regarding the type of spur e.g. length of branch, type of rowel etc., inspections after each test and the penalty for misuse is punished by elimination.
“Therefore, we believe that neither the double bridle nor spurs represent a welfare risk to horses and there exist sufficient controls to ensure against their misuse. To make these two pieces of equipment optional would have no positive impact on horse welfare.”
The letter said, “To institute a rule under the guise of horse welfare which has no positive impact on horse welfare would be disingenuous and cynical. It would reduce the FEI’s credibility as an organization guided by principles and evidence. Simply stated it would be an irrational decision. Further as with most compromises of principles, it would have negative long-term effects as it would endorse the unjustified criticism which would encourage even more unjustified attacks. While it may be uncomfortable to endure unfounded attacks, the only real defense is to adhere to the principle of using objective scientific evidence to establish rules regarding welfare.”
The EEF’s Theo Ploegmakers said that there was growing consensus that sport must acknowledge the importance and strive to obtain and maintain its position in society.
“For a sport with animals, such as in equestrian sport, this is more difficult than for most other sports.,” he said. “With horses in the game, instances of bad images or snapshot videos evoke emotional reactions. A Social Licence to Operate is given or lost by the public, which does not see a difference between racing, jumping, dressage or any other discipline. The public only sees the image of the horse and is concerned about what they think is the welfare of the horses used in sports and entertainment. It means we must be very mindful of how our sport is portrayed, and the communication we provide to help the wider public understand the high levels of horse welfare already in place.
“The biggest threat to the SLO for our sport is the public losing its confidence, and trust, that the way we handle horses and our sport, in general, is the right way. The difficulties we face are that there is a difference between what we, the experts think, and what the public thinks. Equestrian sport is not immune from the challenges that this brings with it. The research paper from World Horse Welfare has learned (sic) from the food and natural resource industries that have also had to work to maintain their SLO.
“It is not easy for us, the equestrian community, to admit and accept, that the way we handle and sport with our horses might be perceived so detrimentally by the public. Our sport has developed over many years, and we view many aspects of it as ‘normal’ or even ‘necessary’ but to an outsider, with little equestrian knowledge, it may not be understood this way and these opinions are decisive to the sport receiving its SLO. Ensuring we remain open to this and take time to consider ways we can open up our sport is essential to gaining public acceptance.”