What the International Dressage Trainers Club got wrong
A detailed breakdown of the infamous open letter to the FEI
All views expressed here are my own.
The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) is exploring ways to improve the welfare of sport horses. One of the policy changes they are looking at is making double bridles and spurs optional at higher-level dressage competitions. This has prompted the International Dressage Trainers Club (IDTC) and the International Dressage Riders Club (IDRC) to pen a remarkable joint open letter calling for double bridles and spurs to remain mandatory.
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I say remarkable, because the letter (which has been taken down from their website, but can be found here) is full of both factual misconceptions and pretty questionable rhetoric, where the IDTC and IDRC effectively call anyone who disagrees with them ignorant and uneducated.
Well, as it turns out, I disagree with them, and with a BSc in Veterinary Medicine and an MSc in Ethology I can hardly be accused of being either ignorant or uneducated. I therefore decided to address the main points from the open letter, detailing some of the factual errors and calling out some of the more problematic rhetoric.
I have quoted passages from the letter (which, again, can be found in full here) and added my comments to each of the quoted passages at the end:
“We understand that there is discussion around making the double bridle and spurs optional for Grand Prix dressage tests. We respectfully ask you to consider the input of the primary stakeholders regarding this proposal.”
Surely the primary stakeholders are the horses that will be experiencing the effects of the double bridle and the spurs.
“The opposition to the double bridle comes from a lack of understanding regarding how and why the double bridle is used.”
This is a very deceitful way of introducing an argument, because it implies that those who disagree are ignorant and less knowledgeable, and that their opinions therefore shouldn’t matter. (It’s also a bit ironic given their own factual mistakes in the letter.)
“Yes, the misuse of the double bridle can lead to force and injury, this is true with the snaffle or any other bit or even a hackamore.”
This is a transparent attempt at relativization. Yes, any equipment can cause harm, but the risk is higher with equipment that has been specifically designed to work through discomfort, such as bits and spurs.
The horse didn’t evolve to carry metal junk in its mouth, and so there is no space in a horse’s mouth for a bit, let alone two. Bits are a common cause of oral lesions, pain, and discomfort, and have been associated with resistance and discomfort-related behavioural issues.
For this reason, a double bridle is inherently more uncomfortable than a single bridle, because it forces the horse to carry a larger number of discomfort-inducing foreign objects in its mouth.
To quote Dwight G. Bennett, DVM, PhD, from the book Equine Dentistry (2011):
“The double bridle puts a lot of hardware in the horse's mouth, and the chances of injury are arguably doubled as compared to bridles with a single bit.”
“Any indication of injury to the horse results in elimination. This is a powerful incentive to ensure riders are judicious in their use of the reins.”
The prevalence of bit-related injuries and discomfort/conflict behavioursin dressage horses (which I detail further down) indicate that whatever regulations and incentives are in place are not enough to guarantee horse welfare.
“The anatomy of the horse determines the effect of the bit(s) on the horse and the snaffle and curb bit function in different ways. The snaffle produces the flexion and exercises the muscles whereas the double bridle produces the bending of the haunches.”
This is categorically untrue. You cannot lower the haunches by manipulating the horse’s head. The biomechanical effect of the curb bit is not bending of the haunches but lowering of the head and bending at the poll through leveraged forces on the chin, poll and mouth. This effect is unrelated to the mechanics of the hind end: a horse on a curb can bend its poll and neck with lowered hind end and elevated back, or with trailing hind end and collapsed back (like in the “rollkur”/”low-deep-round” head carriage).
In fact, you don’t need a double bridle at all to achieve true collection: there is an increasing number of riders who train advanced dressage movements in a snaffle, with a bitless headpieces, and with no equipment at all. Surely they should be given the same opportunity to showcase their skill and hard work in the competition arena?
“The double bridle enables the rider to improve the precision of his aids and to establish a refined communication with his horse (…) This evidences a high level of skill and training and why it is required at top level of competition. Proper use of the double bridle demonstrates the ultimate in expertise.”
I would like to challenge this position. There are many ways of establishing refined communication between rider and horse, and achieving this with minimal use of equipment is arguably a better demonstration of skill, training, and expertise. Dressage is, at its core, about movement - NOT about equipment.
To quote one of the great masters of classical dressage, Nuno Oliveira, who famously executed advanced dressage movements with nothing but a silk cord in his horse’s mouth:
“It is only by allowing horses to move on a free rein, and not in holding them in, that success may be obtained. Riders who hold in their horses are insignificant riders and will never advance.”
“Similarly spurs give the rider the opportunity to give subtle and refined leg aids.”
This seems to be a misunderstanding of how spurs work. Spurs are not a refinement of the leg aids in general, but rather a specific leg aid used to create collection.
When spurs are applied to the horse’s sides, the horse braces against them by contracting the abdominal muscles, which angles the pelvis and lowers the haunches (you can easily visualise this with an unsuspecting friend: jab them in the sides with your fingers and see what their body does).
As very few competitive dressage horses are ridden in true collection anymore, spurs are clearly not used the way they are intended to be used, and are therefore an unneccessary piece of equipment for most riders.
Furthermore, there are plenty of riders who achieve true collection without spurs, and they have as much right to showcase their skills and training as those who rely on equipment.
“Therefore, we believe that neither the double bridle nor spurs represent a welfare risk to horses and there exist sufficient controls to ensure against their misuse. To make these two pieces of equipment optional would have no positive impact on horse welfare.”
I strongly disagree with the statement that there are sufficient controls in place to ensure good horse welfare in dressage competitions, and here is why:
About 10% of dressage horses and 16 % of dressage ponies have oral lesions, according to a recent study. They are more frequent with bitted than bitless bridles, and increase significantly with comeptition level.
Noseband design and tightness are not regulated at all, even though there is a strong correlation between noseband tightness and bit-related injuries, physical discomfort, and emotional discomfort. These effects are combounded by the double bridle. Particularly crank nosebands, common in double bridles, can exert pressures on the horse's face "that, in humans, are associated with nerve damage and other complications". Furthermore, "horses wearing double bridles and tight nosebands undergo a physiological stress response and may have compromised vascular perfusion".
Many dressage horses are forced to move with their nasal plane behind the vertical as a direct effect of the mechanics of the double bridle. This head position is associated with both physical and mental discomfortand is NOT sufficiently penalized in either lower or higher level dressage competitions.
The prevalence of conflict behaviours - a sign of emotional stress, and thus compromised welfare - in dressage horses is generally high, and some studies have found that it increases with competition level. Conflict behaviours are also NOT sufficiently penalized by the judges.
“While it might be tempting to make these items optional as a 'peace offering' to critics in the hope that they will be satisfied that approach is incorrect and naive. But more importantly giving in to unwarranted or ignorant criticism is practically and ethically wrong.”
This is a pretty bold statement by the IDTC/IDRC, given the factual errors in their own letter. It’s also the statement I find the most problematic, because it’s an attempt to discredit those of us concerned with the welfare of competition horses.
In addition to my own qualifications as an equine professional with five years of relevant university education, I have cited eleven scientific papers, one veterinary textbook, and even an old master of classical dressage to support my arguments. Does my criticism still count as unwarranted and ignorant?
“While it may be uncomfortable to endure unfounded attacks, the only real defence is to adhere to the principle of using objective scientific evidence to establish rules regarding welfare.”
I agree. And the objective scientific evidence is in favour of re-evaluating current regulations.
“Further we urge that when considering welfare measures the options are evaluated in the context of the all the FEI disciplines. To suggest that one discipline needs to be more controlled in regard to welfare than another is misleading and false.”
This is a straw man argument. Not one person criticising dressage is saying that show jumping and eventing are off the hook. There is complete anarchy with regards to bit and noseband use in both disciplines, and the FEI definitely needs to do an overhaul of those policies, too. But right now we’re discussing dressage.
Bottom line is this: the FEI is not looking to ban the double bridle or spurs. They’re considering making them optional. Surely there can be no harm in allowing greater flexibility in choice of equipment, when that flexibility is in favor of using less aversive equipment?
If it turns out to be impossible to train horses to perform Grand Prix movements without a curb bit or spurs, then there will be no competitors at that level without a double bridle and spurs, and the issue will resolve itself.
If, however, it turns out that it is possible to train horses up to Grand Prix level without a double bridle and spurs… why shouldn’t it be allowed?
Dressage is about movement, not equipment.
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Tell et al., 2008; Cook and Kibler, 2019
Hockenhull and Creighton, 2012
Kienapfel et al., 2014; Górecka-Bruzda et al., 2015; Uldahl and Clayton, 2019; Hamilton et al., 2022
Uldahl and Clayton, 2019
Uldahl and Clayton, 2019
Casey et al., 2013.
McGreevy et al., 2012
Von Borstel et al., 2009; Kienapfel et al., 2014; Christensen et al., 2014
Kienapfel et al., 2014; Hamilton et al., 2022
Hamilton et al., 2022
Kienapfel et al., 2014; Górecka-Bruzda et al., 2015
Hamilton et al., 2022
Thank you for this amazing analysis, as always. Fingers crossed that these items are made optional and a prayer for the future that bits will be made optional in ALL levels of dressage competition 🙏
Oh that was great ! - So well written... and makes their ( pathetic ) attempt at manipulation visible for all to see more clearly !
I hope more and more agree... and really ... ( in my semi-uneducated opinion ) I don't think they should be optional - I really think spurs and double bridles should be banned :) .....