Olympian and International Dressage Judge Michael Poulin Weighs in on Gwyneth McPherson’s recent article discussing some of the darker issues within the dressage community.
A note from the Editor: Michale Poulin’s letter was inspired by this Training in the Right Way article. The article was originally published on Monday, September 24, 2023. The article was temporarily removed from the site and has since been revised and reposted in order to ensure that any necessary confidentiality is maintained. All edits were made with the knowledge of the author and her consent. Horse Nation does not take removal of articles lightly and, like Mr. Poulin, we strongly believe this is a topic that needs to be discussed. We thank him for taking the time to reach out and engage in this conversation.
I read the article recently published on Horse Nation by Gwyneth McPherson and wanted to take a moment to weigh in on the issues presented. I found the article to be excellent and, moreover, incredibly truthful. I state this as someone who has been to four Olympic games representing our country, trained three other Olympians, attended four Pan American games in which our riders returned home with gold medals, trained innumerable horses and riders to the Grand Prix level, and as an FEI judge. Without a doubt, there is an unfortunate amount of rough riding and reliance on the horse’s talent rather than a focus on correct training and development in our sport today. This needs to be addressed.
Having participated in dressage at the Olympic level, I have had the opportunity to view training and riding in several other countries and though there were certainly those who modeled correct, effective work, I can attest to the fact that there are still a lot of questionable practices and cruelty to the horses within the industry here and abroad. Often, the animals are viewed as a commodity, used to further the rider’s goals and ego, rather than as a partner or a testament to good training.
As a competitor, I have seen even vets do things in these high pressure, competition situations that are ultimately detrimental to the horses. At the time, I was unable to say anything as I was there to represent the United States and bound by the rules associated with that privilege.
Now, as an FEI judge, I have brought many of these welfare issues up to the FEI. For the most part, they are doing everything in their power to see that those riders using cruel training methods are reprimanded. But the reality is that more people need to speak out. There is only so much that can be done to fix these issues in a show setting. More people like Gwyneth McPherson need to come forward and bring these issues to the public’s attention—not only to hold people accountable but also to help educate others on what dressage is and is not.
I give her 120% for having the courage to come forward, clearly her concern for the horse’s welfare is at the forefront. I truly believe that more individuals need to post videos and photos of this sort of thing when it comes to light as, far too often, largely due to money and political reasons, these things get swept under the rug and ignored.
Certainly, that is terrible for the horses, but it is also absolutely detrimental to all riders, trainers, and individuals with a love of the sport.
Furthermore, I do believe that we, as competitors, riders, judges, and so forth should be willing to contribute to a fund that would support those speaking out on these matters in the event that there are legal ramifications for doing so. I for one would certainly contribute.
Ultimately, if we don’t openly address these issues and return to a focus on training that keeps the horse’s welfare at the forefront, the sport of dressage is dead in the water.
Most people who reach the highest levels in dressage make their mark in one primary facet of the sport – competitor, trainer, instructor, judge. Michael Poulin is all four. He is a member of the Bronze Medal winning United States Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and boasts multiple national and international championships. Michael heads the Poulin School of Dressage at the Dressage Center, Inc. in DeLeon Springs, FL, where he works with a prominent student roster.
In addition to serving on The Dressage Foundation’s Board of Directors, Michael was also a long-time member of the Board of Directors and Dressage Committee of the USEF. He was instrumental in the founding of the USDF Instructor Certification Program. Through The Dressage Foundation, Michael also originated the “Young Rider Dream Program.”
Michael is a founder of the North American Dressage Trainers Association and is also a member of the International Dressage Trainers Club and the Classical Dressage Riders Association. He has traveled nationally and internationally as a dressage coach and “S” rated dressage judge.
He says, “The philosophy of classical riding is that the horse understands the rider’s aids with relaxation, not fear, and relates the aids to the physical movement that he’s doing. Classical riding develops the horse physically with mental understanding.”