Sunday, May 29, 2011

Social Media comes unhinged...

Recently a video has surfaced and has quickly made the rounds in the social media circuit, I believe it merits some discussion here. The video was made without permission of the videotaped parties, by an organization called Epona TV. According to Epona's website, " is produced by seasoned equestrian journalists with a special interest in the sciences of biomechanics, learning theory, nutrition, behavior and management." However in this particular episode, I believe that they have behaved more along the lines of an animal rights activist group in the same class as PETA, in that they have used questionable tactics to “out” what they believe to be abusive treatment to animals, and then promote their ideas to sympathetic “animal lovers” who may or may not have background knowledge to make fair or realistic judgments on the material they are presented with. In this particular case, Epona taped the warm up sessions at the FEI World Reining final, and produced a video that they posted online, of reining trainer, Craig Schmersal, schooling his horse in the warm up pen. In their opinion, the video is proof of that fact that Craig is abusive to his horses, and that reining in general is poorly regulated for abusive treatment of the horses.

I have spent a lot of time reading comments on this video, both at the original source, as well as numerous other horse related social media sites, and am completely appalled at the comments, and general level of overall ignorance being displayed in these online environments.

First and foremost, let me say that I believe that this video does not show Craig in any way abusing this horse. He is a professional trainer on a very highly trained horse, at a world class competition, and he is simply doing his job, which is schooling his horse before he goes into a class. Period. Now I am not going to try and explain WHY I believe this is not abusive, because that is not the intent of my post. And, would I recommend that you run out to your backyard pony and start picking up on them like that? Of course not-it would be a recipe for disaster...

I have gleaned a number of comments from a variety of sites that I would like to include here. The first few are in support of Craig and I believe they all make some good points. These comments are few and far between in the 100’s of comments on this video that are out there. If you go looking for these comments, you may or may not find them. Why? Because those people who have posted this video are trying to do everything they can to damage Craig’s reputation, and the sport of reining in general, and are removing them as fast as they are posted. Please read on...

“These horses are the elite of their event and are capable of performing way above the average horse, If this is the worst example of abuse you can find in the sport, I think that the FEI and the NRHA are doing a great job monitoring for abuse and the trainers are doing a great job developing these athletes without abusive training. I am pretty sure that the riders hands and feel are way better than your observation skills. This horse is showing no signs of being abused.”

“I think people are reacting to what they think this feels like in their hands and to their horse, and I am sure if most people complaining tried this on their horse it would react like an abused horse. The trainer is not jerking, he is checking for resistance by picking his hand up.”

“After watching this video SEVERAL times and reading the varied comments I found myself unable to resist commenting. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING this trainer did should fall under the label "ABUSE". Did he school the horse? Yes! Could he be considered heavy handed by some? Maybe! But abusive or inhuman? Hell NO!! This man was simply schooling a horse-nothing inhumane.”

“I watch our horses work every day, and NO I am not seeing the downtrodden look that some of you are. We treat our horses with the utmost respect, and they have a quality of life most people would kill for. What I see here is an edited video used to inflame those who don't understand actual training as opposed to simply riding. Note the distinction here-“ACTUAL TRAINING AS OPPOSED TO SIMPLY RIDING!”

“Maybe to some he is heavy handed, but in general no he is not. This video is simply a product of the bleeding hearts who feel that you can achieve an international level competitor with a special stick, string, or whatever method you feel can convince your horse to do as you please.”

“I always find it funny when people pass judgment on a trainer or even a discipline, with which they do not have any involvement. All of us involved with reining, cutting, or working cowhorse know what it takes to get the job done. And we also know our horses get more pampering than most Beverly Hills house wives.”

“That horse has a life better than me and you. She lives in one of the nicest barns in the world with full time care, spa, vet, and a trainer that loves his job. She understands her job, which is why she has won over 100k in earnings. He does not ask anything that she is not capable of... “

“Anyone who competes at high levels of competition is aggressive, but his horse is well trained and knows her job...he is not abusive he is demanding...big difference.”

“This guy is training a show horse at a high level of competition.”

Now, here are some comments that I found typical of those in support of the video, and to me, display a blatant level of ignorance, that it is hard to believe! I have chosen NOT to post the 100’s of comments that threaten all kinds of abuse on to Craig and his family. They are easily found and are not worth my time or energy to post here: Note my comments in yellow…

“If this is what it takes to make a reining horse….geeze, I wonder how Stacy Westfall ever did it with NO BRIDLE and riding bareback…. and she didn’t have to use the wall to force a slide.” (Do they honestly believe, that Stacy just decided one day to climb on her horse bareback and perform a reining freestyle? Do they not understand how much TRAINING with (AGAST)-a saddle and bridle with a BIT went into this horse in order to be able to do this performance???)

Is that how they train horses to stop? Running them into walls with their head between their legs? Poor horse. (NO! That is NOT how they train horse to stop!! (NO they don’t “RUN THEM INTO THE WALL”! OMG!!)

When he was going backwards, I was thinking of that as a precursor to flipping over backwards. Then he almost ran into a wall! (ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!)

… oh and i just cannot get over the amazing skill of getting your horse to stop like that…. running her into a wall. poor thing hasn’t got a chance…( AGAIN-THESE PEOPLE DO NOT KNOW WHAT THEY ARE LOOKING AT!!)

And my favorites…

“And what’s with the giant bandage on her knee?”


“And I forgot…how does he even justify riding her with her knee bandaged???!!! I mean he probably took it off during the performance, but still, looks like an injury waiting to be even more exacerbated” NOT… I so can’t be bothered to explain this…the ignorance is pathetic….

Here is my problem with all this…The MOTIVE with which this video was made, was to deliberately damage one person’s reputation by giving a highly edited glimpse of a situation that is easily misinterpreted by those who do not have the knowledge or background to understand the situation. I take HUGE offence to people passing judgment in this circumstance, and using this as their “soapbox” to cry abuse, and even more so, to use this as excuse to utter death threats and abuse onto an innocent party. It is disgusting and offensive.


  1. Well written. While I think cs was rough, this mare was not bleeding, lame or running for her life from fear. She showed well and was taken back to the barn for worse for wear. This is reining at it's highest degree of difficulty and training isn't always pretty. The biggest misconception the general public has is that training is always going to harmonious and lovely. It's just not. He has traveled a long way, at great expense and is there to do a job. Period.

  2. I think as riders we need to be careful that acceptable and effective may not always be the same as best.
    There is a lot in this world that is painful and necessary, but there is a lot that is produced because of the lifestyle we choose.
    The dentist inflicts pain to fix our teeth but a lot of the need was brought about by improper dental care, poor nutrition and bad genes. What happens due to "normal" life is probably a small proportion of corrective procedures.
    So in our horse's lives, (that we decide to make ours), poor care,bad genes and mistakes made before we got to them often result in methods being used that the general public deem abusive. I think more care should be taken to keep horses at a level of performance that they are well able to handle in light of their passive nature. We get a horse and sink a lot of time and money into it and are considered effective and professional because we get the job done.
    I believe there are a lot of horses out there that people have taken too far with methods that were not necessary, just to get results.
    The horse has no real say in all this. We are the one's who need to see the forgiving and giving nature of the horse and check our egos at the door when it comes to proving a point. Taking horses to high levels of sport is our decision and we need to always monitor our underlying reasons for doing what we do with such a magnificent animal.

  3. Thanks for the comments! Points well written and well taken. Ann, you are correct-competition is a human manufactured activity, and when we introduce an animal into our "games", we all know that egos, and ambition can often result in underhanded and abusive behavior in the quest to "win". In an ideal world one would like to think that the animal's welfare is always at the forefront of everyone's mind when one chooses to engage in sporting activities involving animals but the sad reality is that this has proven to not be the case. It is therefore left up to the regulating bodies to put "rules" into place to make sure that animals are treated respectfully and humanely. And once those rules are written, it is important that they are monitored and followed, by all involved parties. I can only speak to reining as that is the sport I am involved with, but I have always been impressed with the way it has been regulated. At the higher levels of competition, the animals all have to pass a vet inspection at the event in which they are participating. Because I'm not involved with that level of competition, I am not completely up on all the regulations, but I believe also that there is a certain amount of drug testing that is also part of the inspection-if someone has more knowledge on this than me, please feel free to correct me, or elaborate on this...The warm ups are monitored, and at all levels of competition, the horses are visually inspected at the end of each run,(at my level of competition this is always done by the judge of the class) and the rider must drop the bit as well. I personally have seen riders disqualified at shows for (what appears to be) very minor infractions-for example, an apparent spur mark, where the skin had not been broken.
    I believe these "checks and balances" are must be in place and must be strictly adhered to because they hold us all accountable, and it does keep the animal's welfare at the forefront of all we do.

  4. It is funny to read how has become something they are not. Perhaps calling them an animal rights organisation, it is easier to guess there motives? is like an online horse magazine, mostly in the form of videoes.
    A rather small number of the videos is from competition/shows, but unlike other horse magazines, who only report of what goes around in the arena, is more interested in what goes around backstaige in the warm up.
    I wish they would be at every show/competition filming those warm up training methoes, but they only have time for a few.

    Anyway, you can get your facts straight on's webpage, some of it is in english too... I recomend to sighn of for membership, as it is really quality information you can get there about things like biomechanics, learning theory, nutrition, behaviour and management.
    Take a look on facts

  5. Hi Lisa
    Thanks for your comment...
    If it looks like a duck, walk like a duck and quacks like a's probably a duck.
    In this particular case, Epona has not shown any journalist integrity as they have presented a very biased report, with the intent to slant viewers to one way of thinking. I see that both editors come from an English riding background. If they had truly wanted to go to a reining event and present "what goes on around backstage", I am sure that many of the reining trainers would have taken some time to talk to them about the sport of reining. Instead, they filmed individuals without their knowledge or permission, and then edited the video show what they believed to show abuse. Once again, my big issue with all of this is the INTENT behind the video they produced. In my opinion, this is NOT a the way a reputable organization works. I stand by my original post

  6. Based on Lisa's comment above, and an e mail I received, I have ammended my original post to more accurately reflect the content of Epona TV, according to their website. Thanks for the feedback...

  7. Here is an e mail I received from our former WCRA president, Kathleen Keating. I asked her if I could post it here to add to this discussion, and she agreed. She makes some good points...

    Hi Bella

    Even though I'm no longer actively involved with reining, or horses in general, I remain interested in the sport and passionate about horses. I always enjoy your blog, and appreciate being kept on your mailing list.
    I have to say, though, that I was disappointed in your response to the current controversy over training methods.

    To begin with, EponaTV is not, as you say, "an animal rights activist group in the same class as PETA . . . . " Epona is all about performance horses, but from an educated and scientific perspective. Epona has been involved for some time in the campaign against "rollkur," which is essentially the controversial dressage technique of forcing the horse to carry its head overflexed, with jaw tucked to chest. The FEI has been ducking this issue for some time, but is being forced to confront it, and this spotlight on similar techniques being used by reiners is probably going to force its hand.

    It's true that a lot of the reaction against the Schmersal video has come from people who are not knowledgeable about reining, but the response from the reining community is not well educated either. For example, there has been remarkably little discussion about the consequences for the horse of forcing its head and neck into a position where its breathing is compromised and skeletal structure is stressed.

    You place a lot of faith in the sport's ability to regulate itself, Bella, but isn't it worth asking why NRHA is taking so many years to come up with a drug policy? And if the reining standard is a horse that is "willingly guided" and not one that "looks as if it's willingly guided" then why does the judging system promote the blocking of tails -- or do we really prefer not to hear what our horses are telling us?

    As reining tries to make a place for itself on the international stage it is going to come under more and more scrutiny and it needs to be able to defend its practices on better grounds than simply that "the top trainers all do it this way." And if those practices can't be defended in public, then they should be reconsidered in light of what we now know -- just as old-fashioned "horse-breaking" techniques have been brought into line with modern understanding of training techniques, and the nature of the horse.

    Just my two cents.

    Cheers, Isabella. Hope you're enjoying this fine spring weather.


  8. This was my response to Kathleen's post, above:

    Hi Kathleen
    So nice to hear from you, and glad you are enjoying the blog. Would you post this comments on the blog (or could I?) I appreciate your insight and feedback. I had a similar comment on that post in regards to Epona-not sure if you read my response to that or not. For me, this post was mostly about the way in which this video was produced and promoted, which I still feel was questionable tactics. I had looked at their site before making the post, and based on your comment as well as the other one, will consider ammending my original comments about Epona to this particular video specifically. I have stayed away from commenting about the training techniques, because I don't believe that it is my place to judge what is really going on, as I am not a trainer. I have to say, however that I have observed over the years just about every reining trainer in clinics, at shows and in training videos, deploying similar techniques, and believe that this is pretty common training practice in the reining industry. I too would like to hear a response from the professionals in a public forum in defense of Craig and/or the techniques deployed. I realize that "just because everyone does it" doesn't make it necessarily "right", and maybe public pressure will change the way things get done in the reining world. At least it appears that the door has been open for discussion. I just hope that that discussion remains and objective, and in the best interest of the sport as opposed to mud slinging and name calling.
    Thanks again, Kathleen. I appreciate the feedback!


  9. I watched that Epona video, and what I saw was a video of a reining contestant warming up his horse, his way. Kathleen is correct that with reining now being featured on the international stage, as a FEI sanctioned event, there is going to be feedback and criticism. It is easy to be critical, and because people are passionate, sometimes things can get out of hand with the wrong things being said, and the benefits of criticism being lost, with the focus being misdirected.

    Criticism's greatest power is that it can effect change, and bring about good for all involved. Sometimes the things we need to hear are very difficult to hear, so we stop listening, and become defensive and take a protective stance.

    I believe that Mr. Schmersal did nothing out of the ordinary that day, it was just a day in the life of a reining trainer, and that most reining trainers utilize similar methods, and that if Epona was taping an hour later, it would have been another reining trainer at the center of this contraversy. I'm so tremendously sorry that this is affecting Mr. Schmersal, his family, and business in a negative way. I'm in hopes that people will address him with respect and kindness, and understand that he is doing what he knows to do, and like all of us, is on a journey. I'd be especially pleased if the journey could take on a positive direction; We all do better, When we know better.

    I think we need to look to the real issue here, which is education, and take advice from the only real authority "The Horse", and recognize that this is not a Mr. Schmersal/Lil Miss Addy Tude issue, nor a reining issue, but rather an issue which concerns any horse enthusiast/competitor of any horse related discipline, and his or her horse.

    We need to understand that overflexing the horse's neck (Rollkur) can cause damage to the horse, and or inconvenience to the rider as is outlined below:

    1. Potentially causes injury to spinal processes
    2. Causes additional weighting of the front end of a horse (especially a Quarter Horse), which is counterproductive if collection is the goal.
    3. Causes the jaw to be tight, which causes tightness in the back of the horse. This along with the brachiocephalic muscles being braced leads to limited movement, and contributes to gait irregularities as evidenced with the four beat lope exhibited on the video. This position also increases the concussion to front legs.
    4. Causes compromised oxygen uptake by inhibiting breathing effectiveness, thus limiting the fuel to the muscles.
    5. This, along with the stress incurred at having to maintain a tight frame for an period of time can also lead to stress, and an increased heart rate.
    6. Causes the field of vision to be limited.

    The overflexion of the neck (Rollkur)in this case was encouraged by agressive upward acting hands. I can't be certain, but as it appears that a curb bit was in the horse's mouth this action would mean flexion of the poll to the horse. As the willing mare received repeated instruction to flex her poll, with repeated agressive upward acting hands, she complied and came further and further behind the vertical, eventually into a hyper/overflexed position (Rollkur). It is my belief from observation, that she stayed in this position, to allieviate the rider's hands/pressure of the bit, on her sensitive tongue/bars/mouth. So lastly, we have an additional few consequences to deal with. They are very possibly microfractures to the jaw or injury to the tongue/mouth. Next, you now have a horse that hides behind the bit, making communication through the reins and bit difficult.

    I believe if everyone, Riders/Competitors and Regulatory Organizations understand the ramifications associated with certain riding practices/training methods to horses, their riders, and the industry, together they can come up with regulations that ensure that sport can flourish, which truly showcases the best of horsemanship.

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