Olympic shame tarnishes the gold…

by Linda Chamberlain

Has dressage become a blood sport?

No animal is hunted but the world has witnessed this equestrian discipline’s fall from grace at the Rio Olympics and social media networks have been buzzing with allegations of cruelty. There have been pictures of horses foaming and drooling, their mouths full of harsh metal bits and their noses clamped shut with tight nosebands.

Parzival in the World Equestrian Games 2010

And there have been reports of blood.

Horses have been shown with their tongues hanging out awkwardly – their faces alarmed and full of pain. Their sides marked from the prick of the spur.  Their heads pulled into their chests where no equine feels comfortable.

Showjumping has also been criticised after two riders were eliminated – one for excessive whipping, another for the heavy use of spurs.

Gold medals have been won but the glow of victory has failed to warm the hearts of animal lovers who say equestrian ‘sport’ has gone too far.

Jo Macarthur from the Norfolk Horse Training Club, this week attacked the treatment of Olympic equines. She said:

‘Human athletes made mistakes; they did not get whipped by their coaches afterwards.

‘In addition to forced head carriage we witnessed excessive whipping for non-performance and punishment for not achieving the rider’s objective, which is totally unacceptable. ’

Ironically, Andrew Finding from the British Equestrian Federation which governs the sport in the UK, had warned campaigners last year not to use welfare as an issue in its campaign to get bitless bridles accepted in dressage competition.

It would take an effort of Olympian proportions to leave the issue aside. It seems that in Rio all athletes are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Jo said: ‘In the 21st century, it is shameful that abuse of the horse continues in every Olympic discipline. Most shocking to many riders is the continued refusal by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports to allow the softer option of the modern bitless bridle in dressage where the horses are supposedly trained to the lightest signal of the human seat and hands.’

The spotlight in Rio fell on dressage especially because of one horse – Parzival (pictured above at the World Equestrian Games in 2010 when he was also in the spotlight), ridden by the Dutch team member, Adelinde Cornelissen. She withdrew this highly talented horse part way through her performance in Rio. His jaw was patently uncomfortable and swollen, saliva was dripping onto the arena floor and his poor tongue was hanging from the side of his mouth.

The reason was an insect bite. Vets had not been able to reduce the toxins it caused in time. She took the heartbreaking decision to pull out in a highly public way in mid-test and was hailed as the ultimate Olympian for putting her horse before her own competitive interests.

Then came the backlash on social media.

Doubt was put on the cause. A fractured jaw was mentioned. Why did he even enter the ring? Harsh bits and hard hands were blamed. Adelinde denied.

Frankly, I respect the libel laws – I believe her. The horse was bitten. There’s no doubt in my mind.

Also…frankly, it doesn’t matter.

Parzival 3ParzivalParzival (left, in Rio) is just one horse. And there are countless others whose noses are constricted. Whose tongues are seen to be blue; others who have dripped with blood. So many who are trained using methods called Rollkur or LDR (low, deep, round) where the flexion of the horse’s neck is aggressively achieved. Rollkur is banned by the FEI but LDR is not as long as the horse has an unspecified break every ten minutes.

Parzival 4In the UK (and elsewhere) there have been vigorous campaigns to persuade the governing bodies controlling dressage to allow horses in competition wearing bitless bridles.

This is one ban, you see, that the authorities have enforced. A competitor mentioned on Facebook was eliminated at a competition because although his horse was wearing a bit, the reins were attached to the noseband.

They are not having it.

Top level talks last year between the Norfolk training group, plus bitless campaigners from the group A Bit More CHOICE, and British Dressage, the British Equestrian Federation, the British Horse Society and World Horse Welfare failed to convince the authorities that bitted and bitless horses could be judged together.

Jo said: ‘Metal bits are not seen in human ballet dancers’ mouths to exact precise or flowing, light movements, nor are they necessary for control or communication with horses. Norfolk Horse Training Club and CHOICE campaign continue to lobby the British Dressage, British Equestrian Federation and FEI to make the rule change that is being called for on grounds of fairness for the horse, especially after some of the unacceptable antics in Rio.

Dressage - without spurs or bit

Dressage – without spurs or bit

‘A high number of disqualification and withdrawals on welfare grounds during the Rio equestrian disciplines has created a backlash on social media with storms of protest over tight nosebands with horses clearly exhibiting signs of stress and pain, evidenced by excessive foaming of the mouth and terrified facial expressions.’

The British Equestrian Federation didn’t want welfare in the sport to become an issue for campaigners to exploit. The trouble is there is no cosy place for cruelty to hide.

A horse bleeds in Rio and minutes later the animal-loving world sheds a tear.


1imageTrimmer Nick Hill and holistic vet Ralitsa Grancharova will be running practical training courses on the horses’ hoof and how to trim. They are based in Bulgaria and are offering the chance to accompany them on their rounds for up to a week and gain hands-on experience.

Nick Hill 12For those experienced in hoof care, ‘You will see everything from straight forward trimming cases to pathologically deformed hooves. We will walk you through the process of bringing the equine back to equilibrium through treatment, diet, environmental changes and barefoot trimming. Amongst the regular clients there are always emergency cases that need our help, which you will be able to see and assess with us.

‘We will be travelling extensively around Bulgaria, spending each day in a different area of the country. The price includes three meals per day (all dietary requirements catered for) and accommodation. Travelling is done by car. Students pay for their own flight tickets to Bulgaria.’

They are interested in taking a couple of students at a time but will also be offering tailor-made short courses for those without experience.

For more info – contact Nick Hill on Facebook.


Cover_Barefoot_3 (1)I’m a book writer and journalist but horse riding is my great love. I’m relatively new to bitless riding but have been a barefoot advocate for a long time. The shoes were taken off my horses about 16 years ago as soon as I realised the harm they were causing. Since then I have transitioned quite a few animals including my lovely retired mare, Carrie, who suffered from navicular and was due to be put to sleep when I took her on. She features on the front cover of my book – A Barefoot Journey – which tells the story of riding without shoes in a hostile equine world. Mistakes, falls and triumphs are recorded against the background of a divided equine world which was defending the tradition of shoeing…with prosecutions. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p.

‘The best book I have ever read, everything was so interesting. And gave the courage to be barefoot and proud of it!!! I always felt the same in my heart but this book just backed up everything I thought. Thank you for writing such an amazing book’ – Amazon reader.

‘ Required reading for anyone thinking of taking their horse’s shoes off’ – Horsemanship Magazine.

‘I loved reading this intelligently written book. It’s so good I think every hoof trimmer should hand this book out to clients who are going barefoot for the first time’ – Natural Horse Management magazine.

My historical novel, The First Vet, is inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark – the man who warned against strong bits and exposed the harm of shoeing 200 years ago but was mocked by the veterinary establishment. His battle motivated me to stretch my writing skills from journalism to novel writing and took me to the British Library and the Royal Veterinary College for years of research. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book has more than 50 excellent reviews on Amazon and a recommend from the Historical NovelCoverSociety. 

Here’s one of my favourite quotes from Bracy himself – ‘A horse that is free of pain will lead from the thinnest piece of chord.’


‘Fantastic read, well researched, authentic voice, and a recognition of the correlation of our best slaves- horses- with the role of women throughout history. If you are into history, barefoot horses, and the feminine coming of age story, then this book is a must read’ – Amazon US reader.

If you want to keep in touch, click the follow button on this blog or find me on Facebook…Another historical, horsey novel is in the pipeline. I am being inspired by a very famous equestrian campaigner from the past who quietly made such a difference to horses. I’m more than half way through the first draft – blending fact and fiction is such fun! And so many people have asked me to write a sequel to The First Vet. But I think I should feature one of Bracy Clark’s colleagues. It’s on the ‘to-do’ list…xxx