Opinion: What We Can Learn From the Latest Scandal in Dressage Riding (involving Andreas Helgstrand and his horse Akeem Foldager)

Some of you might have followed the latest ‘uproar’ in the dressage scene as photos of the horse Akeem Foldager, ridden by Danish dressage rider Andreas Helgstrand, circulated the internet. Although, certainly, not the first photos of this kind that I’ve seen, I found them very disturbing and I’m very glad that there will be consequences for the rider, albeit not very dramatic ones.

This is what happened. On April 16th, photos of Helgstrand training Akeem were published on Epona TV’s facebook page, showing Akeem’s open mouth and blue tongue as a consequence of the rider’s hard hand. They also showed dark spots in the fur and swelling where the spurs usually have contact to the horse. Someone took these pics during an open house training at Helgstrand’s stable and send them to Epona.

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You can view the photos here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152777331733312&set=pcb.10152777335663312&type=1&theater

Epona TV regularly posts photos of rollkur-riding and tries to make the public aware of harsh training methods. The uproar caused by the photos in the international riding community and press pressured the Danish Equestrian Federation to order an investigation. The subsequent report was very disappointing, though. It stated that Akeem’s mouth was examined by a vet and no noticeable problems could be found. The vet also didn’t see a problem with the swelling on Akeem’s sides. (Lisbeth Thorstrup kindly reminded me that I wasn’t quite right. The vet appointed by the Danish Equestrian Federation, Peter Busk, stated that he found no lesions in the mouth, but some cracks in the side of the mouth and a pain reaction in the jaw, which he ascribed to misuse of the bridle. See her comment below. (Full report here: http://www.rideforbund.dk/da/Information/Nyheder/2014/04%20-%20April/~/media/rideforbund/Hestevelfaerd/Hestevelfaerd/Dyrlaegerapport_19_april_2014_Akeem_Foldager.ashx) Helgstrand himself found no apologies for his riding. His lame excuse was that the curb bit didn’t quite fit the horse and the chain was too tight. About the dark spots in the fur he said that they were caused by clipping. The report and Helgstrand’s statement resulted in more bad press and angry facebook users. Then, Equsana, one of Helgstrand’s sponsors, announced yesterday that they will withdraw their sponsorship. They insisted that another vet examined the horse, who came to a different conclusion than the official one.

This doesn’t look very spectacular, but in the modern dressage scene it’s a small revolution. Many facebook users expressed their respect and gratitude on Equsana’s page. A lot of commentaries that I’ve read were very critical about Helgstrand’s behaviour and demanded that he should never be able to start at competitions again and should be banned from keeping horses. Well, we all know that that’s not going to happen. Yet, the withdrawl of sponsorship is a step in the right direction and shouldn’t be underestimated. Unfortunately, it is one of the few steps that can (and will) be undertaken against such harmful riding. It is a pity, though, that sponsors react only on severe public pressure, if they react at all, of course. Both Passier and Fleck, Helgstrand’s sponsors as well, haven’t made any statements yet and seem to wait for the storm to pass.

It is sad to see how in modern dressage the horse, a living being after all, is reduced to something like a piece of sports equipment whose performance is more important than its well being. Judges reward spectacular movements instead of harmony and ease. They support the harsh training methods just like the audience which buys tickets to such shows. I really don’t get how people, who might even buy organic eggs, at the same time applaud riders like Helgstrand. I’ve read a commentary on facebook that laying hens have a lot more animal rights then sports horses. I think that hits the nail on the head. I know a lot of sports horses that live in too small boxes, cages if you will, never get out on the paddock to play with other horses. They spend their lives behind bars 23 hours a day and one hour a day they are expected to give their best. And I can’t do anything about it.

I think it’s bad enough to train a horse in such a cruel way, but what I find even worse is the attempt to play it down. If you make a mistake you have to own up for it. Every good rider knows when something is wrong with the horse, when it tenses up due to pain and unfitting equipment. Certainly, every rider is responsible for checking the equipment! You can’t just wiggle your way out of it by saying that the groom put in the wrong bit and pulled the chain too tight. Even if this is the case, it’s the human who is pulling on the reign! I am strongly reminded of a German dressage rider who tried to explain the doping substance found in the blood of her horse by saying that the horse must have accidentally gotten it through the water supply of the stable, which must have been contaminated by the medicine that was orally given to another horse. She even produced expert evidence that this is possible. I really wonder why these riders don’t feel the moral obligation to be a good example. Or maybe they just don’t know what’s wrong anymore, so much are they focused on winning.

This case teaches us that every one of us can really achieve a lot! We saw how fast photos of this kind of abuse can spread via internet and can force sponsors and officials to react and make statements. Let’s take photos of abuse, let’s sign petitions (http://no-rollkur.com), let’s talk to people who don’t treat their horses well. We should be aware of the equipment we buy and support companies that sponsor good riders. We also have to be critical about our own riding and look for gentle ways of teaching horses. Our example will show others that there are more humane training methods. We all can help to reform modern dressage sports, a reform which I think is already under way. Riders need to know that they are being observed and that their actions will have consequences.

As humans, we are responsible for our horses. They didn’t choose to be ridden, shown at competitions, they didn’t choose to live in a small box and not being fed according to their natural requirements. They suffer in silence, yet, they are always open to communicate and give us one more chance. Horses are definitely the better humans.

Visit www.epona.tv to follow the case. (And thanks to Lisbeth Thostrup for the corrections)

Update: Helgstrand is short of another sponsor! As of today, Linsmark terminated their support. I just read it on Starstone: http://starstonestenfalk.wordpress.com/2014/04/21/linsmark-terminates-sponsor-agreement/ “With Equsana walking away, one could still shrug it off, applaud them for not playing along, but nothing was really going to change from this nice gesture. With Linsmark backing out too, it will force people to take sides.” Ha!

Another update: More and more sponsors quit their contract with Helgstrand! Even Passier 🙂

9 Comments on “Opinion: What We Can Learn From the Latest Scandal in Dressage Riding (involving Andreas Helgstrand and his horse Akeem Foldager)

  1. thanks for sharing (well, sort of – I’m sad to see these pictures of abuse!). I hadn’t seen this, and it’s awful that this is the example being set. I think you’re right – justice will win in the end, it’s just that the end is a long way off. Kudos to the sponsor who dropped this guy, let’s hope the horse world keeps taking steps to prevent abuse and shady training methods.

    • Another sponsor dropped out today 🙂 Unfortunately, this seems to be the only thing how some people rethink what they’re doing…

  2. It was great to read your blog.
    I have a few comments, though. The vet report in question was by Peter Busk, the vet appointed by the Danish Equestrian Federation. He saw Akeem a week after the Open House arrangement, where the pictures were taken. Not by Epona.tv, but by someone (not named) who sent the photos to Epona.
    Peter Busk did not find lesions or scar tissue on the flanks of Akeem, but he DID find a cyst on the right side. He did not speculate as to the origin of this. He also found no lesions in the mouth, but he DID find cracks in the side of the mouth and a pain reaction in the jaw, which he ascribed to misuse of the bridle.
    The Danish Equestrian Federation had to act on the pain thing, but chose to gloss over the cyst.

    • Thanks very much for your important corrections! Can’t read Danish I’m afraid, and what I found in the German press was a bit sloppy. I just read that two more sponsors dropped out 🙂

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