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Dressage riders fear for future at Olympics

March 2, 2024

Top athletes fear consequences for the sport of dressage after cases of serious animal cruelty were uncovered among well-known riders in Denmark and the United States.

A horse gallops
Dressage has been the focus of attention after cases of serious animal crueltyImage: Friso Gentsch/dpa/picture alliance

A letter sent to FEI, the international governing body of equestrian sports, left no room for interpretation: "Our sport is in serious danger. The current scandals and the bad reputation threatens its existence and could mean the end of dressage and para-dressage as Olympic disciplines." The letter was sent by leading athletes, trainers and officials from the world of dressage, including seven-time Olympic champion Isabell Werth from Germany. She is the president of the International Dressage Riders Club (IDRC).

The correspondence, addressed to FEI president Ingmar de Vos and FEI secretary general Sabrina Ibanez, came as a reaction to the most recent cases of animal cruelty in dressage. Another letter, from the Northern European equestrian organizations from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway, followed at the beginning of the week and called for the FEI to take action at international level. The letter states that, despite all efforts to date, "a lot needs to be done to ensure the welfare of horses at all times".

The Danish television channel TV2 broadcast a documentary in autumn that showed disturbing footage taken at Danish Nations Cup rider Andreas Helgstrand's riding center. Horses were shown bleeding from their mouths and flanks during training. It was reported that happened as a direct result of the riders' using the snaffle, or metal mouthpiece on the horse's bridle, and the spurs too forcefully.

Even more disturbing were older videos of Colombian-born dressage rider Cesar Parra's training sessions that went public in January. Parra, who competes for the United States, can be seen repeatedly hitting the horses with whips at short intervals during their exercises. Sometimes the horses were kicked and subjected to the so-called Rollkur, which has been banned by the FEI. It involves the rider pulling the horse's mouth far down with the reins, so that the animal almost bites its own chest. The horse's neck is severely overstretched and bent in the process. A German couple of horse breeders were also present at the events.

'Disgusting and terrible'

The videos caused angry reactions within Germany. National dressage coach Monica Theodorescu was quoted in a statement from the German Equestrian Federation FN, as condemning "such treatment of the horse as a partner in the strongest possible terms. We clearly distance ourselves from these kind of training methods."

Hubertus Schmidt, 2016 Olympic team champion with Germany in Rio de Janeiro, described the practices as "rape", and rider Ingrid Klimke called the Parra case in particular "disgusting and terrible" on German television.

A man and a woman wear red and stand with their arms crossed
German national dressage coach Monica Theodorescu (left) condemns the animal crueltyImage: Frank Heinen/rscp-photo/picture alliance

Both cases have already had consequences for the responsible riders. The Danish federation banned Helgstrand until 2025 and revoked the Helgstrand Dressage's training-company status. Parra was suspended by the FEI.

German dressage rider Matthias Rath also came under scrutiny recently. Rath, who once competed for Germany at European Championships and the Nations Cup, is also reported to have subjected his horse Totilas to the Rollkur during training at a tournament in Northern Germany in January 2020. The horse died that December. Rath has denied the reports, telling the equestrian magazine Reiterrevue that "an incorrect head-neck posture is neither my intention nor part of my training".

Pentathlon as warning

Show jumping in modern pentathlon should serve as a warning example for athletes, trainers and officials. The competitions in the subdiscipline at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo turned into a farce and provided an example of what equestrian sport shouldn't look like. The sad highlight at the time was the performance of German gold medal contender Annika Schleu and her national coach, Kim Raisner. Despite using force and coercion, they were barely able to persuade the frightened and overtaxed horse to complete the course.

The incident resulted in a global discussion, with the outcome that modern pentathlon would no longer be ridden in future. After the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, show jumping will be replaced by an obstacle course in the style of the "Ninja Warrior" competition to benefit the horses. The popular TV format sees contestants balance, climb and shimmy over various obstacles. 

German modern pentathlete Annika Schleu rides a horse at the Olympic Games in Tokyo
German modern pentathlete Annika Schleu at the Olympic Games in TokyoImage: Stanislav Krasilnikov/picture alliance/dpa

No decision has been made as to whether the cases of severe animal cruelty in dressage will lead the sport to a similar fate as that of the modern pentathlon. Nevertheless, the debate about animal welfare in equestrian sport has been going on for some time, with animal rights activists and equestrian athletes often taking irreconcilable positions.

Werth said on her Instagram channel that she hopes "in future we will have an honest and fair discussion that clearly distinguishes between bad riding and cruelty to animals." Riding mistakes "may and must be fairly discussed," she added. "But please be factual, objective and fair".

CHIO Aachen project as opportunity?

A pilot study was presented and launched at last year's CHIO in Aachen, the largest equestrian event in the world. The animal welfare was objectively tested, initially on six horses, including one of Werth's dressage horses. The study involved long-term camera observations of the horses' behavior during the tournament, including their sleep rhythm in the stalls and the measuring of the stress hormone cortisol in the horse's feces.

The analysis is ongoing, and the results have not yet been presented. The worried riders would hope that it turns out all the horses tested did not feel stressed, but relaxed and comfortable during the show in Aachen.

One fact, however, must not be ignored: The event in Aachen is known as the gold standard among horse shows. What applies here is not necessarily representative of the equestrian sport as a whole and cannot be generalized.

This article was originally written in German.