I am sure we have all seen the video now of Mark Todd smacking a horse with a branch at one of his clinics. I have always been a huge fan of Mark Todd’s. I have always really admired him and honestly considered him a fantastic horseman. I was shocked when I saw the video. I wanted to write about it straight away. But instead I waited. I wanted to give myself time to really work out exactly how I felt about it all before putting pen to paper.
I want to start with saying I do not and can not defend his actions. Yes you can argue that it looks worse than it was, that the short viral video doesn’t show the whole story. You can even argue that the branch was really no worse than a schooling whip. But my personal view is once you resort to repeatedly smacking a horse like that you have lost.
Pressure and fear based training
Wrongly or rightly, the majority of horse owners and riders train their horses using Negative Reinforcement. This involves adding an uncomfortable aid, and removing it once the horse does the desired action. For example; pulling on the reins and releasing when the horse stops. When the horse doesn’t imediately respond to the aid, you apply more pressure, pulling harder, tapping with a whip, growling with your voice. All of these things can easily become forceful, agressive and frightening. But I personally don’t think training horses with negative reinforcement is wrong when done correctly. Because when trained well, the horse will respond the the lightest of aids.
My thoughts on what happened
I am yet to meet a horse who will point blank refuse to do something for no reason. They are usually saying no because they are confused, scared or sore. While pain could have been a potential problem with the horse in the video, the fact that they would happily go down steps onto the ground and jump into water, made me think that it was most likely a mixture of confusion or fear. The rider had stated that the horse had a problem stepping down into water despite eventing at a reasonable level and jumping into water happily enough.
In the longer video of this incident, you see Todd and the rider doing all the right things. They get the horse to go through the water. They jump out the water in the area they want to step down into the water. At this point they decide to approach a small step down into the water. The horse hesitates and Mark Todd waves the branch around, smacking it on the floor, and the horse jumps down the step into the water. Yes this is technically scaring the horse into doing something. But sometimes when they have developed a mental block about something, you just need to get them to do it to help them realise it is okay. How many of us load horses with someone standing behind them with a lunge line? How many of these horses get better every time they load because they realise it is okay?
In the longer video, the horse and rider come back round again, and with less encouragement from Todd, pop down the step again with very little hesitation. Now this is where I feel like the situation got away from them. The horse still had Todd behind him to go down this smaller step, although he showed little hesitation. Maybe it’s hindisght, knowing what happens next, but I personally would have kept repeating jumping down this smaller step at least a couple more times or until the horse needed no extra encouragement and then maybe called it a day. Instead they decide to move up to the bigger step. This is when the horse comes to a stop and Todd resorts to smacking the horse until it decides to jump down. I can’t help but wonder that if they had repeated the smaller step a couple more times first, would this have happened?
Does this incident make Mark Todd a bad horseman?
Understandably, there has been a lot of outrage about this video. Long time Mark Todd fans have turned their back on him. Many people now believe he is a bad horseman and shouldn’t be allowed to train horses. Of course when you see someone act like this, you will question what they are like with their own horses. You will question how he trained his horses in the past. But I don’t think it is that black and white.
I have seen comments from people who have worked for Mark Todd over the years saying how shocked they were to see this as he had always been the first person to put his foot down if he thought anyone was being too rough with the horses. He has been renowned throughout the equine industry for having an incredible bond with his horses, often using that to explain why they worked so well together. I always found it fascinating how well he got on with some really quite quirky horses. Having worked with quirky horses myself, I don’t think forceful handling would mellow them at all. If anything, I think it would make them more difficult!
Based on everything I think I know about him and what I saw in the video, I don’t think he is a bad horseman, I think he is human. I didn’t see someone intentionally hurting a horse to get results, I saw someone acting out of frustration. Yes it is wrong to take our frustration out on horses and is not an excuse for his actions at all. But can anyone here really say they have never been frustrated or lost their temper with an animal and lashed out? You might have shouted at your dog when they nearly tripped you up. You might have checked your horse a bit harder than you should have when they tried to barge past you. All of these things are wrong and you feel bad afterwards. But I don’t think that makes you a bad person.
I feel the same about Mark Todd. He shouldn’t have done it. Being a legend of the sport, he has to be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. He should have a better control of his emotions around the horses he is working with. He should be better at keeping his frustration in check. But he is still human. He will still have his bad days and he will still make mistakes. This does not excuse his behaviour. But I think there is a big difference between someone who abuses horses and someone who pushed one too far in a moment of weakness. I personally do not believe he poses a risk to horses in his care.
Should Mark Todd be punished?
Purely because of who he is, I think Mark Todd has to be punished. I think the authorities have to show that this type of behaviour will not be accepted. He imediately stepped down as a Patron for World Horse Welfare and he has had his racing license temporarily suspended while the BHA investigate. He has also had trial by fire on social media.
I don’t know what I think an acceptable punishment is. While I completely agree that what he did was wrong, I also think that the video probably looked a bit worse than it was. This combined with the fact that I don’t think he is a risk to his horses, I don’t think I would support a year long ban, similar to what Gordon Elliott had. I expect him to recieve some sort of ban, although I suspect it will be more to show the general public that the BHA take it seriously. But I also know that he will never fully recover from this, and maybe that is punishment enough. I grew up with him being a much loved icon of equestrian sport and he will never truly be that again.
Rider Blaming & Other Welfare Issues
Social media has been very divided. There are some devote Mark Todd supporters going after the rider of the horse or saying there are other welfare issues we should be talking about. I also wanted to share my thoughts on these.
Starting with the rider, I have seen a lot about her this past week. Now I don’t really agree with how she brought the video to light. I don’t like that the shorter video she shared really didn’t show the full picture. I really don’t like that she posted it on social media 2 years after the incident rather than raising it with the relevant authorities. I also don’t like that some of the statments she has made since it went viral seem to contradict statments from others who were at the clinic. It all feels a bit shady to me.
But, I don’t know if I would feel confident questioning a legend of the sport at the time, even if I wasn’t sure I agreed with what he was doing. I also don’t think it is okay that people are going back through her social media, looking for photos and videos of where she is “abusing” her horse worse than Todd did by over using spurs etc. He is the professional in this situation and he has to be held to a higher standard. Also, if you really think she was doing it all for attention, why improve her social media stats by snooping through her accounts? Those who disagree with what he did are still going to disagree, even if she isn’t perfect herself.
As for the other welfare issues, my non horsey mum made a very good point the other night when I was ranting. Yes being too heavy for your horse, riding a lame horse and being to strong with your aids are all wrong and are all welfare issues what need to be addressed. But unfortunately, many of these people are ignorant to the damage they are causing. Mark Todd is a professional. He knows how to behave and he knows he was wrong. Yes we should be doing more to address these other issues, they are issues I write about frequently to try and raise awareness. But the ignorant actions of the average rider is not compariable to the wrong actions of a professional.
I agree with many of the posts saying that we should Be Kind. One bad action doesn’t make you a bad person. Yes he was wrong and yes he should be punished. But I don’t think anyone should be writing the nasty comments I am seeing about anyone involved. It’s just not needed. For those of you upset about seeing people saying they support Mark Todd, bare in mind that they support him as a person, for all the good he has done during his long career. They don’t support the actions in this video. And for everyone upset about seeing his name dragged through the mud, unfortunately I think it needs to happen. He was in the wrong. Equestrian sport already gets enough bad press for welfare issues that I feel like as an industry we have to show the rest of the world that we don’t support this behaviour.
Last Updated on 18/02/2022