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How to spot horse abuse and what to do when you see it.

Don Jessop

Hang on to your shorts folks, this article is gonna get heavy.

First, be careful thinking you know what horse abuse is from everyone’s perspective. There are circumstances regarding safety for horse and rider that require setting boundaries and being firm. Those circumstances are NOT horse abuse by the standards I will attempt to set here. And fortunately, I’m the one with the pen, so I get to set the parameters for this conversation, at least, for today. Trust that I love and adore horses and value their welfare us much as anyone.

Each person makes their own assessments regarding abuse. Some people think owning a horse is considered abusive. Some people think owning is fine but letting a horse get fat or skinny is abusive. Some think rough handling is the only thing that qualifies as abusive. Some think groundwork is okay, but riding isn’t. Some think negative reinforcement should never be used, only positive. In short, everyone makes their own definitions. I’m going to give you mine and hope you accept it for today’s purposes.

Abuse… is treating another thing, horse, human, or machine, with neglect, contempt, frustration, harshness, and little regard for its future.

By that definition, “being firm,” for the right reasons may not always be abusive. And in fact, it’s not. But being firm with frustration, contempt and little regard for welfare, is abusive.

Example: Your horse steps on your foot, crushing your bones, and you wave your hands frantically, slapping the horse’s shoulders firmly, screaming for relief until he moves off your foot. Was that abusive? NO. Safety required firmness.

Contrasting example: Your horse won’t flex at the poll and look “dressagey” enough for you, so you yank the reins back and forth (or some version of that) to prove to him you mean business. Was that abusive? YES. Exercises framed as learning don’t require that level of harshness, whereas exercises framed as safety might.

Even talking about abuse can get a trainer like me into hot water publicly. I don’t mind, it needs to be addressed. We, the horse loving horse industry need more awareness and truth about the subject, so we’re better informed to shine brighter for the public that gets to watch us perform. The public will, after all, decide the fate of our industry.

So, in a nutshell, and I could give a thousand examples, abuse can be most easily assessed by reading whether the harshness is related to safety, or to learning. From that point, we can break down what activities are meant to teach or guide a horse progressively toward our goals and what activities are meant to set boundaries and keep everyone safe.

You can make your own list of “safety or learning” activities, but generally, if a horse is heading for a cliff, actually or metaphorically, it's okay to be a strong, direct leader, trusting you’re doing whatever is necessary to survive. If your horse is trying to learn how to carry a saddle and he’s hopping about like a kangaroo, relax, he’s learning, don’t add frustration and harshness to the mix. If your horse is about to dump you because he spooked, check the breaks, fast and hard if you need, we will all understand. But… if your horse won’t flex or perform the proper footwork to demonstrate flying lead changes, watch yourself, tread lightly my friends, your horse is learning. Be patient and kind. Don’t add frustration and harshness to the mix. If you do have to be firm, always balance it with rewards the horse can accept immediately afterward and for many hours after training to ensure a trusting relationship.

I could go on, but I trust you get the point. Survival requires a certain level of harshness no one likes to see but we all sort of accept. Learning should never require that kind of reactive behavior from the rider or ground person.

In the case you become adept at spotting real horse abuse, you may feel the need to speak out about it. Call out the offender, so to speak. Do it. But remember this before you do: They won’t hear you and change anything unless you can speak in relatable terms. People aren’t bad, they just don’t know better. Frustration is a common human experience we can all relate to. Use your own experiences to come across as caring. Educate yourself to mastery horsemanship and learn the depths of the trials and errors in training different disciplines. Speak to those trials. In the cases where you must step out and firmly correct a rider or trainer, find something positive you can speak about them too. Balance the equation. Most people are trying to figure stuff out and their open to learning.

I was corrected early in my career by a woman who saw me working with a horse with hands that were too quick for the situation. She came up to me and simply said, “It hurts my heart to see you work with a horse that way.” I can honestly say she helped change the trajectory of my career with her sincere comment from the heart and she never said I was horrible and a bad person. She spoke to the event, not the character. She spoke to her experience, not to what else I should do.

In the most extreme cases, where subtle coaching isn’t showing signs of improvement, report the abuse to local authorities. Most authority figures, such as animal rights folks and police officers are trained to see the welfare of the animal and investigate the surrounding circumstances to get an accurate picture. There’s no need to virtue signal and try to fix the world around you by verbalizing everything that triggers you. But some events do require change. Just be sure, when you see something, not to judge the whole book by its cover. You may need to be a catalyst for change in some extreme places but be sure you have the tools and evidence to support your plans, knowing they could backfire, given the heavy emotions involved.

Final notes… Everyone has their bad hair days. It’s important to operate with some latitude and grace, comparing your own humanity to others, without pretending you’ve got it all together all the time. But at the same time, keep a keen eye to common mistreatment, educating and influencing a positive change around us, and help keep our horse industry strong and beautiful. We don’t want to lose what we have to poor actors, we want to raise the tide, so to speak, so all boats are lifted higher.

Thanks for reading. Blessings to you, my dear horse loving friends. Comment and share accordingly, adding politely to this big topic. There is much more to cover here, from welfare, neglect, overworking, meeting physical and emotional needs, balancing firmness with massive rewards, and so on. The list is long, but I believe it’s a great starting point to introduce the concept of safety versus learning when judging a situation for the horse.

​Thank you again, Don Jessop

Don Jessop - Blog Welcome

Hi! I'm Don Jessop

With Mastery Horsemanship

I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.

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Don Jessop


Don opened up a community, full of people on the same journey you are!
To share LIVE Q&A's and help people and horses transform Confidence.

Don Jessop


Don shares his  passion for writing with his passion for helping horse owners see the horse and themselves for who they truly are.

Don Jessop


Don believes every horse owner should have access to the Principles of Horsemanship and he shares them freely here.

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