Jun 10, 2009

Just What is Inhumane Exactly?


I'm going to tackle something incredibly controversial - the practice known as "tail setting" in the American Saddlebred industry. Let me just start by saying that I honestly don't have a problem with the practice. Dear reader, I bet you are shocked, especially seeing as how I rant just about everything else. Ha! I like to keep you on your toes. No, but on a more serious note, I just want to say that while I would never set a horse's tail myself, I don't feel the need to go out and shame the people who do.

Look, it's a complicated issue and there's no black and white here. I would even venture to say that half of the things we do to our horses fall into that gray category. Sometimes the shade of gray is a little darker, and sometimes we start by thinking considering a practice to be of no consequence and end by abhorring it. It is the nature of what we do as riders and trainers. We have to make the best judgment we can for the animal's care, without knowing how the animal itself feels about it. So, when I say that I don't have an issue with tail setting, I am really saying that while I personally wouldn't do it, I'm not going to condone anyone for doing it either. On the scale of things we do to horses, it seems benign enough to me.

So, with that said, let me just explain what this process entails. Essentially, the owner of a show Saddlebred can elect to "cut" his horse's tail. No part of the tail is broken, no part is docked (that, I will agree, is pretty goddamn cruel except in certain medical instances). The cut consists of two small pinpoint incisions made through the muscle that allows the horse to depress his tail. Anesthesia is used beforehand and painkillers are administered afterwards. The incisions can take as little as two to three days to close up completely. You just need to be sure to care for the area well, to prevent infection. Now basically the theory is that after this surgical procedure, you must place a tail crupper on the tail in order to stretch and loosen the muscles around the incision point, allowing the dorsal muscles to contract, and encouraging the tail to be held more easily aloft. The muscles that allows the horse to swish his tail are left completely intact and all the animals having had the procedure are able to swat at flies when not wearing their crupper. Should the crupper be removed and the horse retired or simply just put on pasture, the muscles fall and the tail acts nearly as perfectly normal as prior to the "cutting." The only difference is that the horse cannot clamp its tail to its buttocks.

My feeling is that if the procedure is done properly and the horse is guaranteed to never be turned out in the tail-set (that would be cruel, not to mention dangerous), I can't see that it is something that I need to spend a lot of time worrying about as an inhumane practice. Oh, I know that sounds horridly callous, but I can think of far worse things that we do to our animals on a daily basis. In fact, I feel far worse for the horse at being stuck in a stall 24/7. The reason, I suspect, that this subject causes so much controversy is because it is a cosmetic surgical procedure that cause some discomfort to the horse. Surgical is the operative word here. And because it is completely unecessary, we deem it horribly cruel. To be perfectly frank, I think we all need to focus on energies on improving our training methods. This sort of petty stuff distracts us from the larger aim of improving the horse's life on a daily basis.

It is far worse to tie a horse's nose to the stirrup and leave him like that for a half hour, all in the name of improving its bending abilities. It's worse to use tight chambons, draw reins and gogues that force a horse into an unnatural headset, sometimes interfering with their breathing, in lieu of proper training. It's worse to use crank cavesons shut so tightly that the horse can't even think of opening its mouth. It's worse to jump horses in draw reins. It's worse to think that you can teach incompetent riders the use of a double bridle simply by trial and error. Dudes, I can think of a million more examples that I am willing to spend my time campaigning against.

These grooming and stable management practices are never going to be something I can agree on with my fellow riders and trainers. I personally think it is terrible to never turn your horse out on pasture; I think it is silly to body clip a horse that is not on an intense training cycle; I think it is horrible to even consider using a metal currycomb on a horse's delicate skin. But all of these things are done by my peers; I can't quibble with those because I mentioned in my opening paragraph, there are no easy black and white answers. All I can say is that I do not consider tail setting to be a painful, cruel procedure. Unnecessary, yes. Uncomfortable, perhaps. But not inhumane. The word "inhumane" suggests brute force, pain or neglect. It is destructive and lacking in any compassion. By that standard, tail setting does not fall into that category.

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