Though it has a patina of respectability because both men and women (and even princesses of England) compete in it, equestrian sports should be the first to get the boot from the Olympics, which the IOC keeps saying are too big anyway. The sport is not exactly a hotbed of overt cruelty, but it does exist. Take the practice of “rapping”: During training, horses are sometimes forced to jump double barricades, the first of which hides the second. Banned in some countries (but not in the U.S.), rapping is supposed to encourage the horse to jump more carefully through the pain of having its legs hit the hidden second rail.
Other forms of equestrian cruelty are systemic. Forcing a horse to jump over barricades is an egregious form of animal subjugation for many reasons, not the least of which is the horse’s inability to sign consent forms. Veterinary science continues to improve, but there still exist horse injuries which humans can’t treat, resulting in the animal’s being injured, suffering, and finally being euthanized “humanely” after performing stunts solely for human gratification. (Does a gold medal excuse cruelty?) And an airplane flight to some far-off Olympic host city is stressful enough for a human who knows what’s going on and has access to air-sickness bags, Perrier, and multilingual flight attendants; what if you’re a horse who has to take the ride loaded into a pressurized cargo-bay stall-- even if your grooms are tagging along to look after you?
And let’s not just pick on the prestige events: Olympic equestrian sports are fundamentally no different from the down-home horse racing Homer Simpson bets on. We’re not holding our breath, but someday international athletics will have to realize that humans are the only beings with the freedom to choose to compete in sports.
First published 1992 ¶ Updated 2009.07.30