Horse Handler Rant Part I: Of Twitches and Lip Gloss

A little while ago our fellow lesbian feminist spinster aunt posted a picture of her lovely Arab mare, Maypearl, sending many of us into wistful dreams of gentleman farming with enough land for a horse or two. Within the comment thread Twisty referred Maypearl’s (reputable!) breeder as an “Arabian puppy mill” and that brought me to memories of my own Arabian and his numerous issues and Arab handlers in general.

I purchased my gelding from a cowboy horse-trader who had plans of turning him into a bucking bronc for the rodeo if getting “a top trainer on him” didn’t work in settling him down. A bronc! Appalling. You see my horse was a basket case. He was absolutely terrified of people, but men in particular. And men in cowboy hats most especially of all. This was, after all, why the horse trader had him to begin with: his sire’s stud fee had been $10,000 U.S (hello 80s!) and if he hadn’t have been essentially unusable I would never have been able to afford him. I would open the stall door and he would back himself into the corner, snorting cautiously, eyes widening. It would take me a good 10 minutes just to put the halter on him.

our first week together

our first week together

It also took months before I could mount him without having someone hold firmly to his bridle. Before that he simply wouldn’t stand still long enough, and if I just tried to jump on him, I would never have a chance to get my seat and gather the reins before he had succeeded in bucking me off. So I would have to have someone hold him while I gently and slowly, carefully, sat astride him. I would gather the reins, make sure my feet were securely placed in the stirrups, nod to the handler when I was ready, then desperately try to stay on as he BLEW UP and took off, bucking like mad. I would just try and keep his head up, and encourage him to move forward. After a few minutes of mad bucking he would start settling into a trot. After that he wasn’t too bad, as long as I continued to sit quietly on him (don’t raise my arms, ever, as it freaked him out).

I had the privilege of knowing this animal for 10 years before cancerous tumors in his spinal column forced me to have him put down. In all those years, with slow, careful and gentle touching, it still took  7 years before I could stroke his ears without him flinching or narrowing his eyes in that “I’m not really keen on that” way. What was up with his ears? Well, when a horse is behaving particularly “rank,” which likely means frightened or confused or in pain, some people will grab and twist the horse’s ears to get them to stand still for the farrier or the vet or what have you. As you might imagine, that hurts. And what does it do to a prey animal that is already frightened at what you’re doing when then you inflict pain? Yeah, it doesn’t help. Another thing that’s more common than twisting ears is twitching the horse’s mouth.

“Twitching the mouth” means pulling the horse’s upper lip out and placing it in a loop of chain, then twisting the chain tightly. Horse people have been known to argue that the mouth twitch isn’t painful, that it sends endorphins to the horse’s brain – that’s why the horse stands stock still once you put the twitch on them. Not because they’re in pain. Not because if they move an inch they feel sharp stabbing pain on their mouths. The horse in the picture below certainly doesn’t look like it’s in pain or discomfort or anything.

One doesn’t have to twist the chain tightly, I suppose. Maybe there’s also a psychological component in that the horse feels (is!) trapped in this potentially painful way and so freezes. But really, my upper lip can be pulled out – if I’m feeling fiddly I might pull on it myself. But that doesn’t mean having someone put my lip in a chain and twisting it tight won’t freaking hurt! I just. don’t. buy the endorphins line. Perhaps I can test a twitch on a human that twitchs! All in the name of science, after all.

Horse people can do some awful things to horses because that’s what’s been done traditionally: twitches, twisting the ears, pinning, “sacking out,” branding and castrating without anesthetic (now that we have it). There are more but I’m (thankfully) drawing a blank at the moment. Twisting the ears is, of course, merely an act of dominance. Horse won’t stand still because of fear or because of confusion? Dominate it until it does what you want it to. Don’t actually try to teach the horse, lord no. Just control that bitch animal. Make up asinine excuses about endorphins or something. Maybe talk about how the animal has a natural hierarchy in the wild so you’re just doing what comes “naturally.” (more on that in Part II)

Even when people love their animals, they can be cruel. Perhaps particularly with horses (and horse racing), traditions are even more powerful. Whenever there’s lots of money and luck at stake, be assured that the traditional way of doing things will have a better purchase on the people involved – and in more things than domestication! So we have reputable breeders employing trainers who essentially torture the animals into obedience.

Twitching and ear-twisting happens to all breeds of horses, of course, not just Arabs. But I have met a fair number of Arabians that were flighty and nervous to the point of being down-right neurotic. I think that this has a lot to do with how they’re often handled and shown off to potential buyers and breeders. You see, one of the things that Arab handlers/trainers are known to do is shake bags at their horses. After all, when someone is coming to your stable to view your horses in the hopes of either breeding theirs to yours or

thats some flash, theres no doubt

that's some flash, there's no doubt

purchasing yours, you want to show off how beautiful your animals are! But maybe because the North American Arabian breeding community seems overwhelmed with people who grew up reading Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series, everybody seems to want to show off their Arabs prancing around the arena with their tails in the air, snorting. They are gorgeous when they do that, this is true. I mean, just look at the fellow on the right!

True to Bedouin breeding traditions, they carry their silky tails like flags and have this beautiful, floating movement. Naturally high headed, when excited they carry their heads even higher and flare their nostrils. It’s like out of a book!!eleventy!! The thing is, if your horse is in it’s stall it’s also most likely feeling pretty mellow, maybe munching on hay. How do you get a horse from sleepy-mellow to fire-flags-power-thundery? Well, commonly handlers will shake plastic jugs with rocks, or plastic bags, or large plastic sheets at the horses. Shockingly, this bag shaking makes some of the horses a tad neurotic! Imagine being a prey animal who survived for millennia by running away when confronted with any sudden movement or noise, then grow up controlled by people who would shake noisy weird things at you. Non Arab people might complain about the flightiness of Arabs, but while certainly hot blooded, their handlers need to take a lot of the blame.

the "pose" - note how well you can see the conformation- oh wait, you can't


Then they breed them so they look fancy when they pose for the camera (with their necks extended and their hind legs further out behind them than normal). Stand them normally and you see weak hind-ends and mutton-withers. So much of the main focus in showing off Arabs seems to be fashion. I don’t know how well non-horse people can see how the animal to the left is extending its neck, stretching its legs and thus hollowing its back, but if you wanted to buy a horse that was put together well how could you tell from looking at this picture? The point is that horses are being bred because they look awesome when they pose, because they win shows at halter when they pose, rather than how correct and sturdy they actually are. If we are going to breed animals, we have a responsibility to breed them for physical fitness and soundness, not just for this decade’s sense of style.

In this issue of The Cosmo Horse

In this issue of The Cosmo Horse, how to attract that moneyed human so you can live in comfort and ease! Also, how to use the twitch for some naughty sexxay times!

On top of posing, there’s the cosmetic details. These don’t necessarily hurt the horse at all, of course. Unless ShowSheen is laden with weird chemicals… oh wait. Anyways, this is another place where we see fashion coming in. What the heck is it with Arab show people shaving off all of the long hairs on the horse’s muzzle? Or the long hairs on their eyebrows? Or all the hair on their eyebrows! I mean, look at this stallion to the right. They’ve shaved off all of the hair on his muzzle, up way past the bit (his muzzle is balder than is usual), as well as in this really obvious semi-circle around his eyes! Is that supposed to look realistic? They’ll also shave the hair on the inside of the horse’s ears. Because who needs that? A horse certainly doesn’t use those long hairs on its muzzle or around it’s eyes for, oh I dunno, feeling things. Bah.

You know, for hundreds of years the Arabian was a horse that anyone, and I mean anyone, could bring into their breed’s bloodlines and expect to get an improvement. And that was done often enough that now the vast majority of modern horse breeds have Arab blood in them. It’s one of the oldest breeds around and used to be highly respected. But in the last 40 or 50 years it looks like people have been breeding after an idea, rather than for physical fitness. Feed n’ lead horses, I’ve heard them called. They used to be the creme de la creme. They used to be athletic. 

It’s not all bad, thankfully. The last decade or so has seen the rise of the Arabian Sport Horse, a type of Arab that, like their predecessors, have been accepted into the breeding program of those elite and picky European Warmbloods. That’s what the Arab used to good for. And of course, a lot of horse people are opposed to cruelty and aren’t in such a massive rush to train their animals that they resort to pushing the horse past it’s ability to cope. And I suspect that things have gotten better since the 80s and 90s, when I was out and about riding and visiting the occasional show barn. While searching for photos, for example, I came across a message board thread where they were discussing the pose mentioned above and changes to showing regulations in particular. The thread is two years old but I do think it illustrates that at least there’s dialogue in the Arab community. And as for posing – Morgans are worse!

I’ve gone off on a tangent I’m afraid, and I want to clarify: I don’t think the posing is cruel, but just a stupid way to show us how any animal is put together. I think cruel methods can be used to get the horse to pose like that, of course. And the lip gloss doesn’t hurt the horses either – I’m really just trying to highlight how much fashion has been involved with this breed. And too much fashion creates a lot of actual biological problems for the animals that we breed. In that way, actually, horses get off easy. British bulldogs are largely born by caesarian, I believe, because they’ve been bred with very large heads and very small hips. I tell ya, if I were Empress of the Universe, I’d be banning the breeding of any animal so that it will die if it reproduces naturally. Gah! Both dog and cat breeds also suffer from breathing and eye problems due to severely shorted faces. Arabs are reportedly starting to get that way too, as they breed for a smaller and smaller muzzle. Hey Arab breeders: the expression was “fine enough to drink from a china cup” not “small enough to fit IN a china cup”!

The thing is, we still suffer greatly from this idea that we have the right to mess about with other living things to such a degree that causes pain and/or health issues. They are things that we own, because god said we are to have dominion over all the earth, right? Because we stride across the globe with our big brains, thinking so highly of ourselves. And there are ways in which the oppression of Othered humans and animals and the earth are linked. Carol Adams elucidates this connection much better than I can, of course. The animals don’t talk (or rather, we don’t listen), so we breed them to suit our purposes and our current concept of “beautiful.” Repeatedly, “fashion” dictates how we manipulate the possessions of Real People™: the landscape, the shape of animals, the shape of women.


6 Responses to Horse Handler Rant Part I: Of Twitches and Lip Gloss

  1. intransigentia says:

    I hear you on the ARabian puppy mill. There were some people near my city who did pretty much that.

    Step 1: Throw a bunch of Arabian mares and a stallion in a field.
    Step 2: ???
    Step 3: profit!

    Except that it didn’t work out that way and many of the horses starved to death when step 2 turned out to be important and step 3 didn’t happen so the !@#$s buggered off.

    And I would go on ranting about animal breeding idiocy and horse handling badness but I have nothing new to add. Except that sometimes work friends go to the track and ask if I want to come because I like horses and I say I don’t want to and they say why and I say because I like horses.

    • Crowfoot says:

      I say I don’t want to and they say why and I say because I like horses.

      Ha! yeah. :-/ And I like the idea of racing, except for all the crap. There’s a lot of crap. A lot of crap. Why the hell are they racing what are essentially children?? Two year olds? Oh yeah, of course: MONEY. Couldn’t possibly wait until they’re older. And on and on. Anyways.

      I hear ya on the backyard breeder/hoarder who knows nothing about horses. *sigh* I regularly check into Fugly Horse of the Day and get depressed. My Arab was well bred enough that he’d have probably been a better stallion prospect than many of these back yard breeders (grandson of both Comet and Silver Drift) but I don’t know if I would have bred him had it been up to me. As it stands, I suspect he was gelded late anyways, and perhaps because of his *ahem* “difficult nature.” Or maybe not.

  2. intransigentia says:

    That’s the other thing I meant to say – your horse was beautiful and you were as honoured to earn his trust as he was fortunate to have been cared for by you.

    And for racing – endurance racing and competitive trail riding can be awesome, and have built-in vet checks, if your horse is hurting you’re out of the race – but it just doesn’t have the megatheocorporatocracy appeal of The Sport of Kings, nor is it particularly telegenic. Plus a 40-year-old woman on a retired Standardbred (friend of mine, in fact) can sometimes win, so that must mean it’s not worth doing, right?

    • Crowfoot says:

      aw, thanks 🙂 And in the picture he’s even all dirty and fuzzy with his winter coat! I certainly felt honoured to have known him. When he died it was literally like someone had cut off one of my limbs, just devastating.

      and I completely agree with you re: endurance and competitive trail riding and the megatheocorporatocracy/Sport of Kings thing.

  3. Wendy says:

    What is with the way they present Arabians in the U.S. these days? In my opinion, the shaving above the Arabs’ eye looks hideous (Actually, quite a few people have been saying this lately..) The Arabian has the biggest eye of all the horse breeds, and this uneccessary procedure makes the horse look queer. If the Arabs’ eye is small and not placed correctly, then the breeding needs to be looked at. Use a Stallion/mare that WILL produce the correct eye set. This awful shaving does not make the eye look bigger, it makes it appear that something is trying to be hidden, due to the eye faults. What ever happened to the Arabian horse with a stunning full mane, NATURALLY carried, and a face/body without oil and stressful shaving? It is even being done on newborn Foals now- why on earth for? At worst- (On a mature horse)use the baby oil, trim the bridle path, but don’t distract from the beauty of the Arabian horse..if the eye isn’t right, sell the animal and buy one or breed one that is correct. On saying that, many Arabians that ARE indeed correct are still being submitted to this odd type of shaving, and it really ruins the face. How many Chestnuts REALLY have black faces? How many greys have pitch black eys, that extend down to the tip of their muzzles? Stand back and look at your horse- if something looks wrong- maybe it is!

  4. Wendy says:

    …btw…your horse looks BEAUTIFUL 🙂

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