Willful Ignorance is Destroying Horse Sports

Willful ignorance.

There are a variety of
definitions for this behavior, and it’s pretty self-explanatory, but I think my favourite comes from
Margaret Heffernan, who writes (in her book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril)

that we are sometimes blind in situations where “we could know, and should know, but
don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know

Willful ignorance happens all the time. I’m guilty of it. You’re guilty of it. It’s human nature – we like to be comfortable. The most distressing example of willful ignorance/blindness probably happens within families in regards to child abuse. Once cases break the news, we ask “how could they have been so blind?” Well, willful ignorance is sometimes the reason.

But, what does this have to do with horses, and horse sports in particular?

When I was younger, there were 2 ways to increase your knowledge about horses and riding: read books, and take lessons/learn from someone in-person. I did both of these things, of course, as did many of you, I’m sure.
However, the books were relatively few in number (compared to today), and you either played roulette at your local tack store, ordered a title that looked interesting from one of the few mail-order catalogs that existed, or your heard about a book via word-of-mouth and you ordered it from a local bookstore. We didn’t have the luxury of surfing around Amazon or any other online retailer, back then. Most of my books had photographs in black and white, if they had any images at all – and they were from film photos, not digital ones!

Trainers were sometimes found via the good old phone book, but were also often suggested via word-of-mouth, and by how well their students rode. This is true today, to some extent, but the biggest difference is that it was much easier to hide abusive practices and improper training techniques before smart phones and the internet came along.

Nowadays, though, information is available 24/7 via the internet, and even the quality of books has improved. Smart phones allow us to capture data in the moment, and make it immediately available to the rest of the world. Knowledge that I might not have been able to find at my public library in the 80’s and 90’s is now available for free, and instantly, at the click of a mouse. This is cause for celebration, certainly!

So, with all of this easily accessible information, with all of the videos and photos that we can reach for free online, why is it that horse sports seem to be going backwards in terms of animal welfare and rider/trainer knowledge?

I know I’m not the only person to notice this, but it’s not standard dialogue at most, if any, barns. And I believe that’s because 99% of riders and trainers are willfully ignorant. Let’s apply Heffernan’s definition a little closer to home:

We all could know how the horse’s muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments all work together, and what that means in regards to training methods.
We love our horses, so we should know this information in order to preserve their mental and physical health.
But we don’t, because it’s easier for us to keep using incorrect and potentially harmful methods instead of admitting we might be wrong, and it’s less work to keep using the same method than take the time to expand our knowledge.
And, at the end of the day, none of us want to admit that we might be harming our horses, because that is an uncomfortable proposition…it makes us feel better to ignore this possibility.

Ouch, right? Even worse, is that many people, when presented with reports and information, still turn blind eyes to the problems with their methods via the backfire effect. My favourite one of late is people that continue to argue for the use of certain training gadgets, even when presented with the basic physics that make their very arguments invalid.

All one has to do is look at the recent Adelinde Cornelisse and Parzi situation to see willful ignorance in full-force. It was way easier to shower her with praise for a “great decision” than to call her out for trying to compete an ill horse that was clearly not okay even in the warm-up, because doing so would be uncomfortable for everyone involved – not just Cornelisse herself, but supporters of dressage, in general. It’s never fun when your sport comes under scrutiny for welfare concerns. But, sometimes it happens, and the right thing to do is face the concerns openly and honestly, not sweep them under the rug via spin doctoring.

This sort of behaviour is all over the horse world. It ranges from minor/innocuous (ex. the concept that polo wraps can actually provide support, etc.) to major/abusive (ex. rollkur, LDR, bloody mouths, bloody spur marks, etc.). And I believe it’s one of the reasons we keep seeing so many strange things in the horse world, these days.


But, here’s the good news.
It doesn’t have to be this way!
You have the power to change. Yes, you! And, you have the power to influence other people to change, too, by setting an example and challenging them to do the same.
Double-jointed snaffle

Stop simply parroting things you hear other riders and trainers say or recommend. Question everything!

Have you been using a certain bit for years, and you either can’t remember why, or you use it because you -know- it’s a good bit?

I challenge you to do research on bits and bitting, and – here’s the clincher – to be open minded to ideas and information that are outside your comfort zone. You may walk away from your research feeling the same as you did when you went in. But, be open to the concept that at the very least you’ll walk away with some new knowledge, and you might even have a new point of view on equipment.

The trick is to dig deep! Don’t just read the first “article” you find about French-link snaffles (since that’s the “gentle” bit of the moment), because it’ll just tell you what you’ve been saying for years, and that’s not the point. Keep looking. Keep searching. Don’t just look for information about bits. Instead, research the anatomy of the horse’s mouth, learn where the nerves are in the horse’s face, challenge the claims that bit manufacturers make, think about how you apply rein aids and what effect that has on the bit in the mouth.

Once you find some information, check and see who wrote it. Are they selling a product? Who funded their research? Is the research credible? In other words, be cautious.

It’s going to feel like a stretch. It might feel gross. It will probably feel like a lot of work.

Be open. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very firm in my beliefs when it comes to training methods and equipment. But, on the same hand, I’m also constantly searching and constantly testing my beliefs. It’s the only way to fight the willful ignorance trap.

You might be sitting there, saying “Why bother? my horse is happy, I’m happy, we’re getting good scores, he’s sound….there’s no need!”

If that’s your mindset, well, I can’t change that. I do, however, have to reference Albert Einstein to end this post, though.

You owe it to your horse to know how his body works, and to actually know how your equipment effects him, instead of being a sheep that repeats things you’ve been told by trainers, manufacturers, and other riders.

Stay thirsty for knowledge, my friends!