Equestrian out of the Olympic Games

29 Aug Equestrian out of the Olympic Games

Sunday August 21st the Olympic Games closed. For the first time since 1988 the Netherlands did not win any medal in any equestrian Olympic discipline. Too bad…. or not?

Around 1995 I started horseback riding. I fell in love with it immediately. My first horse Karolus did not like dressage very much, so I sold him as a recreational horse to nice people who lived in the middle of the country, close to a natural park called the “Veluwe”. I bought my second horse: Key West. He was a true “Z1 dressage class” horse, and I was so happy with him! Day in, day out I was busy taking care of Key West. I was very much a Horse Girl, with interest in dressage. Key West and I competed in all dressage classes up to the dutch Z2 level with much success and fun.

Lonneke en Key West winnen een wedstrijd                                Winning the first place with my horse Key West in dressage level M2!

I was like many young Horse Girls very impressed with the Greats of Dressage. Dutch Anky van Grunsven and her horse Bonfire, as well as the German Isabel Werth and her horse Gigolo were on top of their game at that moment. I would get goose bumps when watching them ride a Musical freestyle , and I wanted to become just as good as them. Both won gold medals at different Olympic Games.

in 2009 Gigolo the “Most Successful Dressage Horse Ever” was put down after he did not recover well from a sustained injury. He was 26 years old. Bonfire also was put down at the impressive age of 30 years old. He was suffering from Cushing’s Disease, and had to be released from his suffering. It’s a heartbreaking decision an owner has to make. To have to say goodbye to a friend of many years that is not easy at all.

My horse Key West is not with us anymore either. A few months ago he died in his sleep unexpectedly at 24 years old. He was fit until his last moments, and enjoyed his retirement in the meadow with my other horses U2 and Cooper. I did not have to make a difficult decision: Key West decided himself to go on a beautiful Sunday Morning. Probably his heart stopped. I still find it hard sometimes because I have spent so much time with him in my life, going on adventures and sharing my stories. What soothes the pain is that it’s very likely that I gave him the best life ever all the 18 years he was with me.

Key West a day before he diedKey West a few days before he suddenly died

To be honest I had a difficult time when all the previously mentioned horses died. I saw Gigolo dancing on music from Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” and winning Gold at Atlanta 1996. I was up in the middle of night with my family watching Sydney 2000, and seeing Bonfire make a mistake in a test, but still win Gold. Also, I was one of the thousands of “Bonfire fans” present at Bonfire’s Farewell show at Indoor Brabant waving him goodbye. They were my examples, and Key West was my partner in the search for harmony between rider and horse: the thing dressage should be. The deaths of these horses felt like an end of an era for me.

The Reality

The past years I invested much time and money in my dressage dream. Riding myself, or have a professional rider do it did not matter to me. I could enjoy both very much. Besides Key West, I added 2 horses to  my “horse family”: the horses U2 and Cooper who I mentioned earlier. U2 has had tremendous success in all dressage classes up to Small Tour ( one level below Olympic Level) I was enjoying his big successes from the sideline.  Until the moment came a few years ago that ended the enjoyment of dressage with my horses, as I was forced to open my eyes to the dressage as practiced these days. Result: My dressage dream ended. I woke up and learned from experts the truth about dressage today. Everything I thought was beautiful and amazing I started to doubt. With my most important question: “ What is the status of horse welfare in the sports these days?”

One of the last rides on Key WestOne of the last rides of Key West with my nephews Navy and Milo in the woods.

The Dutch athletes won a lot of medals in different sports during the last Olympic Games. But this time like I said: the Dutch did not win any medal in equestrian. Quite chocking for a Nation that always relied on the equestrian to up the medal count. Other countries like Great Britain, USA and the always strong Germany took home the prizes. Instead, there were enough controversial issues for the dutch team. Like Jumping horse Zirocco Blue ridden by the dutch Jur Vrieling had suddenly lost trust in jumping the high triple combination, and his rider Jur therefore lost his temper and tried to persuade the horse to jump anyway by using a whip which resulted in disqualification. He was remorseful afterwards and from then on continued riding without a whip, He wasn’t the only rider who was disqualified. Other riders were disqualified for using excessive whipping or spurring of the horse. (A spur is the metal pin attached to the riding boot to activate the horse) Some horses had spur marks on their body. Like the horse Parzival ridden by the dutch Adelinde Cornelissen. On TV it was clearly visible that at least on the left side of his body there was a mark, where a spur had at least once, but probably more than once pushed too hard.

Adelinde Cornelissen Parzival Spurmark

Discussion of training methods

Parzival is a talented 19-year old dressage horse who won an individual Silver medal at the Olympic Games of 2012 in London, and a Bronze medal with the Dutch team. Most people thought that the then 15-year old Parzival would probably retire after these successes, just like the Gold medal winner of London and Rio, the 14-year old horse Valegro will do right after the Rio Games. But Parzival kept going. Parzival was successful on the highest level of dressage, but was also the center of many intense discussions about his training methods. He had some incidents during his career: At the World Equestrian Games in 2010 he got disqualified due to blood in his mouth. Also, he has been photographed with his mouth open, and/or his tongue sticking out quite a lot, with a tight curb and snaffle in his mouth. Besides those controversies you could also see his head in a certain position a lot during a training session, that a few professional riders find a normal training position for the horse’s head. This training position of the head has many names. The riders who use this method claim that they are all totally different positions of the horse’s head, but in the end it comes down to the exact same thing. Rollkür, LDR (Low, Deep and Round) and Hyperflexion are a few names of this training method in which the horse is ridden with his head and neck rounded, with his nose almost touching his chest. The riders who use this method say it is good for the flexibility and development of the horse. The people who oppose this method call it abuse, and say that a horse can not breath well in this position. They claim to have a lot of scientific evidence, and in Switzerland they even banned the use of Rollkür.

At the Olympic Games of Rio de Janeiro the most terrible thing happened: Parzival was found in his stable with an enormous swelling around his jaw. The testimonies given by the team and rider state that he was bitten by something poisonous, and that he developed a high fever. Because of that they put him on an IV for many hours. The Dutch team asked the Official Olympic Committee if the starting order could change, but they did not allow it. The Committee thought they would then give one rider a benefit over the others. The team did not bring an extra competitor and horse to these Olympics like they did the previous ones. The rider who was selected for this position declined the invitation to go, as she did not want her horse to go through that if she was only the substitute. Of course she stands in her right to decide not to go to protect the wellbeing of her young horse. A flight, a different climate, and the stress incurred is pretty intense. On Facebook this rider got a major backlash: How dare she stay home? Now there wasn’t any one to take the place of Parzival! Four combinations of riders and horses would start the competition at Rio. Only 3 of them would count for the end results. So even if Parzival did not compete, the other 3 could still compete for a team medal. (but those 3 couldn’t make a difference either it turned out later on in the competition)

Due to the different treatments the fever of Parzival went down the team testified, and also the swelling of his mouth. They decided he would have to do the tough physical effort of competing. For the Team and for the Netherlands. Riding the test, Parzival looked unhappy. He drooled a lot, and when he stuck out his tongue (a sign the horse experiences a problem) his rider decided to quit right away when she saw it. Continuing riding a horse with his tongue sticking out does not feel good, and eliminates a chance for a good overall score.

Parzival mouth

Afterwards on Facebook you could see this rider was very much praised because she quit for her horse, her “best friend”. She was a hero! In reality Parzival did not feel well from the beginning on, and he showed it clearly with his tongue. The decision to compete with a weakened horse turned out not to be the right one, now they had to give up halfway in the test.

Adelinde Cornelissen Parzival

But that’s very logical if you think about it: If you have a high fever a day before, you don’t go run a marathon a day after. or in the case of Parzival, do a tough Grand prix dressage test.  A horse can not talk or make decisions: so the one in charge has to be the wise one. Also, Parzival was one of the oldest horses at the Olympic Games, he is 19 years old. Seniors don’t recuperate as quick as young ones, we all know that. You see that other countries also pulled out their horses of competition when the horse showed it couldn’t continue. The horse Cortes “C” ridden by the American Beezie Madden injured itself in the first jumping course and ended up with a tendon injury so therefore was pulled from the second round. Also the horse Zirocco Blue really lost all of his trust in jumping high jumps and was pulled out for this next round. That is the right thing to do for the wellbeing of your horse.

A human athlete who is sick or has an injury can decide for himself (or herself) to try it anyway for their Country and the Team. You can not do this with horses: there is a good chance you will overexert your horse. As long as you work with horses, you HAVE to put the horse first always, otherwise people will point a finger at you and call it abuse. The American dressage judge Colleen Kelly thinks that Parzival is a victim of abuse, and has recently stated that she will start a court case against the rider of Parzival. She says she has collected a lot of evidence.

Future of the Equestrian Sports at the IOC

it turns out the equestrian sports are having a difficult time at the IOC as well. These particular sports are nominated for elimination for future Olympic Games. High costs, lower income and maybe also the fact that a horse is the athlete and not the rider, have probably resulted in this nomination. The controversies mentioned above have certainly not helped the case for equestrian sports to stay in the Olympics. I alway say:

“ The riders should be thankful that equestrian sports are on the Olympic agenda, it’s in their own hands if it can stay one of the Oympic sports or not.”

In the meantime the dutch horse media asks us if we can please sign a petition to keep the equestrian sports on the Olympic agenda.

But the group of people who don’t understand the equestrian sports at all is growing. These people from outside the “Equestrian World” find it very sad that horses are ridden the way they are. It gets harder and harder for an insider to explain that a horse who walks around in circles in an arena, with a piece of metal in his mouth, with his nose on his chest, pushed forward with metal spurs is normal. The horses are helplessly submitted to what the riders ask from them, and they ask more each time.The riders think that because the horse does exactly what they ask from them, it’s OK and the horse is for sure fine. (Because otherwise he or she would protest, right?) And even people within the sports find that everything is getting out of hand. They think the sports is being killed from within. Of course there are exemptions of people who despite everything try to ride the horse in an honest way. But the outside pressure to go with the present trend is huge. Judges like to see horse with unnatural, spectacular (not correct?) movements in the dressage, spectators like to see jumping horses win in an exciting way.

Besides that, the equestrian sports have experienced an enormous development the past 20 years, especially in the Netherlands. A lot of competitions, lots of horses and many riders have been added. It’s a big business. Many famous and unknown people from outside the Netherlands come especially to the Netherlands for equestrian competitions. Sport horses are one of the Netherlands’ biggest export products these days. Some people spend tens of thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands of Euros on horses, care and training. Many horses are sold for high prices and fly all over the World to countries like USA, China and Australia. The horse SFN Zenith NOP ridden by the dutch Jeroen Dubbeldam will be auctioned off after the Olympic Games. It’s a good horse, so bidding will start at 500.000 Euros. SFN stands for “Springpaarden Fonds Nederland” (Jumping horses Fund the Netherlands)  and NOP for Nederlands Olympiade Paard (Dutch Olympic Horse). This means that this horse is “sponsored” so that they can be “kept” for the Dutch team until after the Olympic Games so that it can compete for the Netherlands in the Games, after which the horse will get auctioned of. The bond between rider and horse doesn’t matter, it’s all about the money. That means that if you are a successful rider without lots of money you need to be able to switch off your feelings. The nice thing about equestrian sports is that there is no age restriction. This means you can also try to qualify for the Olympic Games at an old age.  Jeroen Dubbeldam also competes for years, and even won a Gold medal with his precious horse De Sjiem. The oldest athlete competing at the Olympics is usually found within the Equestrian.

A lot of “horse people” have a dream to become just as good and successful as these Olympic riders. Or they want to breed or train that one champion horse, that will later on be successful on a high level. Many people in the horse business work extremely hard, mostly 80 hours or more per week. Most of them make a modest living. There are many professions linked to the horse sports, but only a few in the top make a lot of money. Those few also have a lot of power over everyone within the tight and dark equestrian world, and even use their power with pressure and force sometimes.

Equestrian sports as a luxury sports

In many countries equestrian is still a matter of luxury, a way of life only the rich can afford. Good care for a horse is incredibly expensive. So you can understand how it can go when people don’t have the means to give their horses exactly what it needs, but do have the urge to achieve success. The pressure in the equestrian world is high to prepare a sport horse quickly to as high of a level as possible. Because the higher the level, the more the horse is worth. And the faster it gets done, the better. Because the longer it takes to get the horse to that level, the more it costs for feed, care and stabling. That’s why many good or healthy horses that are not quite talented end up at auctions or even worse: the butcher. Maybe the equestrian sports have become too populair due to the successes of the past. A horse seems to be a means to get competition success, instead of a partner, a friend for life. A horse is not a robot: it’s a living being that comes with many risks. The risk that the horse is not well is very hard to accept at the top for those involved, because so much is at stake. Much goes wrong these days when it comes to that risk.

Having animals perform in a circus has been banned recently in the Netherlands . Because forcing animals to perform tricks for an audience is considered abuse. What is the difference then with the equestrian sports these days? Because so many do it, it’s OK? What we see at competitions, is sadly only a small part of what really happens. Only a horse knows what’s going on exactly, but again: they can’t speak.

Where is there respect for these amazing horses, that are sensitive, and have feelings?

U2, Cooper and Key West in the fieldMy horses together in the field

Future Equestrian Sports

What will happen if the equestrian sports gets eliminated from the Olympic Games? Will many horse enthousiasts lose their interest? What will all those people do who now make money with horses? Will all those people from other countries still come to the Netherlands to buy sport horses, will other competitions come in its place? Will more horses end up at slaughter, or will breeders simply breed less horses? Or will all the horses have it better, and will only the real horse lovers remain?

Those are all questions for which we don’t know the answers, until it happens. Equestrian only has a future if everyone who takes care of or ride horses, will at least make sure that this happens without flaws, so we won’t see any controversies anymore. That people speak up when they see something happening that is not right. No blue tongues, no beat up horses, no pulling in the mouth with tight curb and snaffle, no tight nose bands, no blood, no force. To make it clear: No unhappy horse. But more open discussions.

The many excuses we have heard so much the past years like “The photo is a moment in time, you can take a picture of any horse like that” or “ My horse has a sensitive skin, so he gets a wound very easily”  and “ If a horse doesn’t like the riding, he would let you know, and he certainly wouldn’t perform so well” are all excuses that have been scientifically proven wrong already. A horse that experiences pain CAN keep on going. It’s the nature. A strong horse doesn’t want to show weakness, because then he or she will be caught by predators. A horse has no choice than to continue and stay submissive to the rider’s will – even if he feels terrible – until he can’t go on anymore. He has to keep going if no one listens to his silent screams, and if he is being pushed to continue. That’s disastrous for the horse.  This knowledge should be kept in the back of people’s mind with each horse that is trained or competed to protect the horse from itself. A better “horse world” starts with YOU: Learn to see the signals your horse gives you. But many people don’t see it, because their idols don’t teach them how to see it. Giving a good example to the “Horse Girls” like I was one, that should be the most important? Especially on the highest – as of now still Olympic – level. Otherwise it seems rather inevitable that Equestrian disappears from the Olympic Calendar. And wouldn’t it be beautiful if the Netherlands would become one of the forerunners of horse welfare, instead of always lagging on?

Lonneke Engel

Lonneke and Cooper

Sources: Horses.nl, NOS nieuws, Hoefslag, Piepvandaag, Youtube, Facebook.

Photos: by Dirk Verest,Joey Holthaus, screenshots of videos & photos from my own collection.

This article first appeared in Dutch on Piepvandaag.nl on August 25th. Piepvandaag.nl is the largest website for animal welfare, nature and environment of the Netherlands. I am a regular author of Piepvandaag.nl. As this article was published in Dutch, I decided to translate it to English for my foreign friends so you learn a bit more about me and my love for horses. I hope you enjoyed it!