I usually draw comics, but as a dressage rider I felt compelled to weigh in — with an appropriate amount of snark — on the current dumpster fire that is the fall out from Operation X.
The expected Dressage Dumpster Fire sparked by TV2’s Operation X has been raging the last week since part 1 aired. Some highlights include:
- The Danish equestrian federation dropped Andreas from its national dressage squad until further notice (likely when his dad, Ulf, is back as president, perhaps).
- Global Equestrian Dressage Group — or rather Waterland Private Equity, which owns it — carefully dodged the landmine of having to take any actual action against Helgstrand by instead applauding Helgstrand Dressage’s “distancing from the horse training activities shown in the documentary […]” and noting how Helgstrand Dressage had undergone a thorough review to implement “various measures and improvements on animal walfare […].” I know I certainly feel better about that. I am sure that now all 350 horses they claim to work each day are being trained properly.
- Helgstrand himself gave an unexpected interview where he essentially put his foot in his mouth saying he had no idea the violent, rough training was going on but that he had already implemented, earlier in the year, a shift in values at the yard to address the issues that he…did not know about…(?)
As is always the case, everyone in the dressage community has opinions (some of which are more educated than others). While there has been the expected outrage and obvious backlash over the systemic and blatant abuse recorded at Helgstrand, I also have seen some argue that perhaps rather than meeting Andreas with shame, we should instead come with empathy (while still holding him accountable, of course… whatever that would actually look like). This commenter did make some other solid points — in particular that everyone who has ridden or trained has at one time or another acted too harshly — but even still, I can’t say that I see any reason to have empathy for a billionaire who chose to systemically abuse horses for financial gain and to improve the stakes for his shareholders. That is not even remotely the same as having a bad ride and being too rough due to frustration or a lack of knowledge or skill. One is an unfortunate side effect of being imperfect beings and the other is a callus, calculated choice (please note I am not disregarding individual responsibility to ride and train with empathy, in the right way; I am just noting that the comparison between the two is inappropriate at best).
But I digress. I’m actually not here to pontificate much on Helgstrand himself or his continued history of controversy that’s been conveniently swept under the rug in the dressage world (because if you’re at all aligning yourself with him, you perhaps need some more introspection that I can’t help you with). What I want to highlight is that I think the conversations happening as we stand gawking around this burning dumpster are important for the future of dressage as a sport. Specifically, I think the most important conversation centers around the question: Where do we go from here?
What happens to dressage the sport when it becomes so badly bastardized by financial incentives that the animals suffer?
How can we right this ship? What would that even look like?
The upsetting fact is that Helgstrand is not the only one guilty of these practices. This sort of thing happens on the daily here in the States. Although places like Wellington are considered to be a hot bed of dressage excellence, this sort of thing is often the norm there. I have seen far more broken (physically and mentally), stiff, and unhappy ‘FEI schoolmasters’ come from Wellington than I’ve seen well trained athletes. I would direct you to one of many examples highlighted in an article earlier this year by Gwyneth McPherson (an article that ended up irritating the powers that be because it called out the issues). That shouldn’t be the case if the training is done correctly, and the talent is developed rather than used up. But when significant money is involved, the old adage that time is money often becomes even more tragically accurate. Developing a horse takes time, but horses are expensive and the longer you have one, the more you cut into your profit.
As another disturbing example of shady training and riding practices, a very well-known FEI rider on the east coast routinely rides roughly in the warm up — so much so that TDs know to watch him. I was announcing a show this summer and witnessed him using rollkur and aggressively spurring his horse, then running him across the warmup. At one point he dismounted, whip in hand, and ‘worked’ the horse down the warmup rail. He took it just to the edge of awkward discomfort for those watching — where they weren’t quite sure if they should say something — and then backed off. It didn’t help his test though. The horse was clearly terrified of him and had to be backed into the arena by two grooms from the ground. Once in the ring, the horse bolted all the way around the outside and back out towards the warmup. The grooms could not get him back in before the time allotted and he was eliminated.
What happened, you may be wondering? Well, a formal complaint was filed with USEF (by another rider there), and I submitted a statement and the video I took as support, and then I never heard. I can only assume that nothing was done and that seems like a problem. Despite numerous similar accounts of this sort of thing, a lawsuit around a dead horse, and possible SafeSport issues, this person is still showing and routinely teaching, clinicking, and training. People are still giving him their money and perpetuating his harassment of horses.
None of that is okay.
Obviously, this is a multi-factorial issue with no singular solution, but there are steps we can take towards the betterment of our sport.
Dressage as a sport is inherently expensive and I suspect it will always attract those with significant discretionary income. This means that inevitably, some will buy the extreme talent and use it, rather than develop it—either because they do not know any better, do not have the skill, or they just don’t care. While there’s not much that can be done to avoid that on an individual basis (because people can spend their money as they please), we can certainly look to keep it from happening on a larger, somewhat organizationally supported scale (looking at you, Global).
As a start, we need to demand that our governing bodies actually tow the line with regards to holding riders and trainers responsible when they perpetuate trash riding, rather than letting them slide because they are financially or politically connected.
We can also do some research individually and refuse to support the equivalent of equestrian puppy-mills like Helgstrand Dressage (350 horses a day? Really? I’m not a math major, but that sounds sketchy and there’s no way one person could appropriately oversee and manage that). The onus is on all of us to continually educate ourselves and be willing to walk away from trainers or facilities that don’t seem to have the horses’ welfare at the forefront. We should also not assume that fancy facilities and expensive horses are inherently indicative of good, correct training.
Ultimately, we have to be more responsible for seeking out appropriate dressage education for ourselves – regarding the training process itself as well as evaluating the professionals we choose to work with. We also need to be willing to speak up about questionable practices as we see them, not turn a blind eye because we are dazzled by talented horses or chandeliers in the barn aisle. Certainly, everyone can have a bad ride, or a momentary lapse in judgement, but when those lapses are the norm there’s a problem. And when it gets to the point that ‘everyone in the industry knows’ the riding is questionable – so much so that a tv station goes undercover to bust them — well, then it’s an official dumpster fire.