Last week drew attention to all of this in a big way for me.
Now a days I don't venture into the world of 'hitch horses' (these are the drafters who are shown in the beautiful black harnesses , patent leather collars, Huge feet, and are stunning for the public to witness) The Big Four: Clydesdales, Percherons, Shires, Belgians. Then, the Suffolks... The Suffolk horses are NOT shod or become hitch horses- this wonderful breed is usually shown as a working horse or a 'farm class' type.
I met some wonderful ponies that had been trained by 'hitch' folks.... Being seriously interested in owning these ponies, I took a day to go visit them. They were very, very nice ponies- large sized and a great size to handle when driving. Well built, great conformation,color- they had it all. But. When I walked up to one of them, she was all but terrified to let me touch her. I didn't force the issue because she was tied to a big post and on a short heavy chain. She sent me vibes that if I did indeed give her the soft rub on her neck I had started to do, that she would fight to get away from me. I let it go, thinking that is wasn't worth scaring her even more than she was. After witnessing that, I noticed that these two were scared of their own shadows when driving. Of course, they were very much beginners in the world of driving but would they ever get past this fear and lack of confidence ? They certainly would have IF they had become mine. They would have begun a new life with me, learning to trust people- ALL people. Then gently re-trained to harness - giving them a chance to mature into wonderfully sweet, happy ponies.
The world of show draft horses is a painful,abusive one for the horses themselves...It is a multi -million dollar business for the "big boys"- those draft horse farms that make their living from breeding, raising and training the different breeds. From birth, the horses are taught to hold their necks up very high. "Heads up" is what it's called and it is taught by a chain under their fragile little jaws. They are taught to trot alongside their handlers as fast as they can travel-with a 'trailer' running along behind them with a buggy whip to Never break into a canter no matter how much they want to. IF they do or are not moving fast enough, they get smacked with a "show stick'' or have their jawbones jerked by that chain lead. IN addition to all of that- before they have hardly been weaned- they are shod. Little baby sized, squared toed shoes to increase their 'action'.... so they lift their legs higher, supposedly looking more beautiful for the judges. They are shorn of their fuzzy baby coats, their ears are shaved clean, and because of their feet, hardly ever able to go act like a normal weanling. No- these show babies stand in stalls until show season is over. Afterwards, if it is cold outside, they may be left to their own devices to get busy growing a winter coat or keeping warm..... If it's summer, they have flys biting them, and those docked, stubby foal tails are not of much use in swatting them. They learn pain, confusion , and yes, fear. Not many humans want a 900 pound foal leaping on their feet, so the babies are hit if they come to close while being shown at halter. And they learn.... They learn fast, due to being incredibly intelligent, kind and wanting to please their handlers... Occasionally a foal will learn to try to get away or avoid being hit or abused, and that foal might also be gotten rid of quickly.
Their yearling year is more 'training'. They are trained that they may as well succumb to being forced to have things done to them. Sometimes these young draft horses are made to stand tied to a strong beam, or tree, or in cross-ties for Hours.... It teaches them 'patience', I have been told. Eventually they are harnessed, and 'taught' to work.... Sometimes this is done a lot by hitching the youngster along side a mature horse, forced to move out and keep up. The youngster has to figure out how to keep up, when to turn, and to stop - all being shown by the adult hitch horse. If they don't figure it out quickly, they will be stepped on, knocked into, mouths jerked on and possibly hit with the ever popular whip. These babies learn- and they do it Fast. At the same time they are learning to move out and go as fast as they possibly can- they are confused, responding to pain, and the fear of never knowing when they will feel the bite of a whip.
As two year olds- these babies hit the show rings in harness. Perhaps as a cart horse, or in a big hitch. The theory is to get them out in the show ring as soon as possible and to have them 'earn their keep'. Bigger shoes- scotch bottoms this time- hooves stretched out so wide they will crack from the bottom up, due to being so weakened. Big flares to the outside on their hind feet causing their hind legs to be so close together that their hocks will touch. Pads, weights and more to once again bring out that giant 'action' wanted in the show ring. These babies also are checked up so high that their neck muscles cramp,and they really cannot see where they are going. But- they had better keep up, or else. They step on their own feet or legs, and don't have good control of just Where those hooves will be flying next, they can't really see anything but what one might see with their faces pointed to the sky, and if they Don't move out as fast as possible, they will be jerked forward by the team in front of them or run over by the horses behind them. If this doesn't work, then shock collars have been sewn into breeching and used to "light up a horse" who isn't moving fast enough. And so it goes.....
This becomes the norm for a big fancy hitch horse. They have sore backs, sore hind ends, and aching shoulders and necks constantly. They are hit with 'cocktails' that include over doses of caffeine, "speed", or what ever will create that "look" needed so badly to attract a judges attention. They don't get out of stalls because " they may damage their feet or throw a shoe"... not until after show season is over for the year. With some big shows beginning in January, that becomes a very short time of being able to be "normal" for a hitch horse.
I have heard that the usefulness of a show hitch horse is maybe until they are 7-8 years with some being less than that. Then they are either bred, or sold, or given away to those humans just getting into the world of show drafters. These "older" horses sometimes have roached backs due to being forced to hold their necks up constantly, have vertebra damage, hooves that will fall apart if not shod, and they know fear of humans..... In general, they've been used up.
It takes a long time for a horse who has been thorough that to learn to trust again. Will they ? Yes, they will. These wonderful, marvelous one ton horses are so kind and gentle that they will give all they have in order to please their human. Even if it means being doped with drugs, and pain killers so they can continue being shown..... even if their life means pain and fear. The fact that more people are not seriously injured when handling or training these great horses is testament to their dispositions.
So- is winning a blue ribbon or a red ribbon, a bit of money,some prestige and status in the world of showing Really Worth torturing ones' horse ?
Is it not more kind to train these grand horses with kindness, and understanding ?
Would intelligent training possibly NOT turn out the 'fire breathing dragons' needed to win ?
Why Should that kind of horse win in the first place ?
Where is the honest working draft horse of a century ago?
Is it more intelligent of we humans to figure that if a 8" wide hoof is good, then a 10" wide shod hoof ,Better ? Why not simply BREED a horse with a wide heel, and allow that to remain healthy ?
A hitch horse of today has less "bone" than it did 25 years ago- they are HUGE ( yes, size Does count here) and are being bred to have that inner fire that is needed to really pour it on in the show ring.
More Kind,or good ?
and how proud are those humans
who do this to their horses ??