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Natural Horse Magazine, Volume 10 Issue 6

Equestrian Sports: Horses Don't Cry

This article presents some of what happens from the ongoing brutality in equestrian sports.

A common practice among riders in such competitions is the use of the bit and whip to force obedience by inflicting pain with them. The amount of physical damage caused by forceful pulls, yanks, whacks and blows go unseen and unfelt by the rider. But the damage occurs, in more ways than just physical, to the horse.

This article isn’t addressed to any specific individual or competition, but to the equestrian sports system as a whole.

In today’s equestrian sports, winning has little to do with horsemanship and the inherent cooperation that comes from a respectful and understanding relationship. It has more to do with the goal of getting to a finish line the fastest, jumping the largest jumps, or otherwise pushing human and horse to or beyond their limits in some attractive or exciting way for an audience.

The material rewards that are presented at (and serve to perpetuate) these activities outshine the intrinsic reward of knowing you and your horse are a confident, cooperative, practiced, mutually respectful team, under even the most challenging of circumstances.

The human characteristic of being compelled to win at any cost to the horse blinds riders to their own lack of empathy for their beasts of burden. The rider may even believe the horse doesn’t mind when she takes out her frustrations on him. After all, horses don’t cry as we know it - or tell - when they have been hurt.

But hurt they are, and hurt they continue to be, day in and day out in equestrian sports. It is their nature to submit, accept, and tolerate, even obey, especially to avoid more hurt. They want to belong - they are herd animals.

And the clever human knows this, and too often takes advantage for personal gain. Brutality,
force through pain and the threat of pain, can achieve that gain for the rider, perhaps more readily than cooperative horsemanship, so unless there is a rule that forbids the bit and whip, the horse is in harm’s way.

Terminology abounds that whitewashes brutality (such as: negative reinforcement, also positive reinforcement, to drive, to make a correction, moving off the whip, punishment, teaching the horse a lesson, etc.) And evidence abounds that reveals its harm to the horse’s sensitive, and not so sensitive, tissue.

Physiological, anatomical and scientific data, and excellent photo materials that illustrate them, can be found in abundance at Warning: It will probably hurt to look at those - and it should. They are not pretty. What follows is a summary of key points presented in Nevzorov Haute Ecole Magazine, Volume 5 (2007) and 6 (2008).

Neurocranialis shock

Neurocranialis shock is shock to the nervous system of the skull, and it occurs when there is impact from a metal bit in the horse’s mouth.

The impact force on the horse’s mouth, per experiments carried out on a horse mannequin by a
child, a woman, and a man, measure in as follows (experiments used snaffle and curb bits):

1. The pull on the reins: Steady pulling, from 110 to 220 lbs; Jerking, from 484 to 660 lbs.

2. The impact force of the metal bit on the mouth (per 1 sq. cm. of mouth surface): Steady pulling, from 110 to 220 lbs; An average force jerk, from 396 to 484 lbs; A strong jerk, over 660 lbs.

That amount of impact puts pressure on not only the direct contact areas (tongue, lips, teeth, gums, bars, palate) but on local (and not so local) oral cavity tissue. Leverage bits apply additional pressure behind the chin, under the jaw, as well. The bit impact most certainly affects the facial nerves and all they innervate.

It also affects the skull and related joints (bone and soft tissue), the neck, and vertebral column. Everything is connected. (See Neurocranialis Shock, Schemes I and II.)

The mechanical impacts can cause a multitude of injuries, ranging from abrasions, hemorrhages, and mucous membrane ruptures to compound wounds, severe neurological damage, and even broken bones. Because of the pain caused, even respiration and heart rhythms are affected. (See

All that pressure is pain, and it does hurt the horse - no doubt about it. And that’s just the bit. Usually in equestrian sports a crop, bat, or whip is part of the accepted attire for the other end of the horse (and anywhere in between). Along with all of the physiological, anatomical and scientific data and excellent photo materials to illustrate bit damages, one can find the same
for whip effects.

In racing, eventing, or even timed jumping, when the horse slows down the rider will whip him from behind to get more speed, regardless of the reason for the slowdown - it could be a fracture about to happen, and the horse knows it, but the rider/ jockey must win, so he uses the whip anyway. The horse gives him more speed and then breaks down. It is an all too common scenario in equestrian sports.

Why does the horse comply, to the point of a fracture? Because the whip hurts, possibly more than the leg injury he is sensing, and he fears being whipped again. Horse hide can seem tough, but whatever the skin’s thickness, remember that skin (dermis and epidermis) is generously supplied with nerves, making it a supersensitive organ.

We know how easily horses can detect a fly landing. Whip damage experiments, studies, and findings - medical and forensic - agree that:

1. The general force of the strike of the popper/ flapper of the whip used in sport is at least 42 lbs
per square centimeter, and the energy of the strike reaches around 20-25 joules per square

2. Striking influences of given intensity may cause different injuries to tissues: from wounds and hemorrhages to local crushing of subcutaneous tissue, rupture of blood-vessels and partial
ruptures of underlying muscles.

3. Frequent multiple local whip strikes cause trauma, hemorrhaging, and crushing of underlying tissues, which can cause general suffering of the organism, including damage to the kidneys. In the event of repeated strikes on the same area of the body, the size of injuries that were described above grows proportionately.

As with all injuries during the process of healing and reabsorption, cells detach from the traumatized areas in the form of free protein – hemoglobin and myoglobin.

These proteins and their debris, having a high molecular weight, have the ability to accumulate in small vessels (capillaries) as well as in the kidneys, obstructing them.

Hemoglobin and myoglobin cylinders are formed,  which can lead to nephrosis (an inflammatory disease of the kidneys).

All of this compromises the processes of filtration and discharge of waste products of metabolism, which affect in a negative way the health and general wellbeing of an animal.

None of the above studies, of course, show how the horse’s mental state has been affected as a consequence of such influences.

Such facts, based strictly on scientific experiments, don’t exist. But we can surely accept ‘extreme mental and emotional trauma’ as consequences of pain and trauma.

We can do better for our horses. There are horsemanship methods that build other types of relationships instead of purely athletic competitors for equestrian sports. We know that children should be taught to respect horses and be kind, gentle, understanding, and fair with them.

We can learn, and then teach by example, a meaningful and considerate relationship. We can toss the crops and bits, and other cruel, punishing ways. We can teach them that there is more to having a horse than winning ribbons and shiny prizes. We can learn about ourselves while we teach - and learn from - our horses. Relationship building reaches beyond the horse/ human relationship. And remember… Horses don’t cry.

Natural Horse Magazine thanks Michael Bevilacqua, Alexander Nevzorov, and Lydia Nevzorova for their help in preparing this article.

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