The Same Old Excuses Need Not Apply

I’m sure anyone who has access to the internet/social media has seen the Mark Todd thing by now. Short version – there’s a video from a clinic a couple years ago where a horse didn’t want to just down a small bank into the water, Mark got a thin branch from a tree, pulled some twigs and leaves off, and proceeded to use it like a switch on said horse. This is the full video, but the most problematic part starts around 1:25… there’s a string of quite solid whacks to the horse with the switch.

I think (HOPE?) we can all agree that this was an inappropriate incident. Mark himself admitted as much in his statement, saying “I wholeheartedly apologise to the horse and all involved for my actions in this video clip. One of the main things I preach is about establishing a mutual respect between horse and rider and that patience and kindness is the best way to get results. I am very disappointed in myself that I did not adhere to that in this case.”. It was made even more complicated by the fact that he was a patron for World Horse Welfare, a position he has since stepped down from.

The fact that there was a wrong-doing here is, to me, indisputable. The more interesting thing about all of this (and geez, I feel like every time something like this happens it’s always enlightening in the worst ways) has been the social media response. You get a lot of people lambasting Mark Todd, for sure. But what I have seen a great deal more of, BY FAR, are people jumping to his defense and defending these actions and this behavior. That’s the part that seems almost more problematic than the incident itself, to be honest, or at least indicative of some serious underlying issues in our industry (Matt Brown and Kate Samuels said it way better than I can, I think). These are the main points I’ve been seeing:

  • “But he’s Mark Todd. He’s a legend. He wouldn’t be successful if he abused horses.” – I think we all know this is a garbage argument and can name plenty of very successful yet repeatedly abusive riders. What you’ve achieved says nothing about how you got there. Trying to choose a rider for your 5* horse or a chef d’equip for your team – absolutely his resume is valid in those scenarios. But in this particular instance of determining abusive behavior? His resume is completely moot. This is a ridiculous defense.
  • “The rider waited this long to come forward? Must not have been that upsetting to her.” – Ok look, this one just has major shades of the George Morris argument to me. It doesn’t matter when or how long or who or why. Again, those are moot points because none of them change what happened on that video.
  • “The horse seemed fine” – Horses (and people for that matter) seem fine through a lot of instances of abuse… doesn’t make it any less wrong.
  • “He barely tapped him” – I’d hate to see your idea of a wallop, then. If there’s a backswing involved, it’s not a tap. Also, all of us former barn kids that used to hit each other with those long thin whips know EXACTLY how much they hurt, whether you put a lot of force behind them or not, so… let’s just put this argument away eh? There’s a difference between a few encouraging taps and 10 good wallops (which is why the FEI has a black and white definition for how many times you can use a whip and where).
  • “I met Mark Todd a few times and he seemed like a nice guy” – This one also has shades of GM. How many times can we say over and over again that behavior and personality do not go hand in hand. Nice people do bad things all the time, the same as bad people do nice things all the time. Just because someone seems otherwise exemplary of character doesn’t mean they are immune from doing bad things, nor does it automatically excuse their bad deeds when they do happen.
  • “It was just a moment in time.” – I mean… sure, but… kind of a big moment.
  • “I’ve seen way worse” – awesome, isn’t that a great testament to horse sports. And while sadly this is true – there is much worse – it’s still not an exemption. You don’t get to do a bad thing and not be held accountable for it just because someone else does something worse.
  • “You can’t even train a horse these days without worrying about someone videoing.” That is a heck of a statement to dissect. I mean, I do get what this person was trying to say (I, uh, think). Sometimes training horses can be ugly. Sometimes horses react in unpredictable ways, and at times things can get a little bit, uh, western, or you have to make a quick and obvious point, or do something drastic to prevent a potentially dangerous situation for horse or human. I think anyone who has spent time training horses knows this to be true. And yes, if you took a clip of something like that out of context then it could certainly look like something it wasn’t. However, I think we also know that getting a tree branch and walloping it repeatedly across the butt of a horse at a clinic when it clearly doesn’t seem to understand the question in the first place is not one of the aforementioned emergency scenarios nor is it particularly helpful or compassionate to the horse. That’s the difference.
  • “I’ve done that before and I’d do it again.” This one came from a pro, no less. Isn’t that lovely. Excellent horse training techniques at work in his barn, obviously.
  • “Everyone makes mistakes” – now this is finally something I can absolutely agree with, although only as a statement, not as an excuse.

Here’s the thing: I think we’ve all lost our temper with a horse at some point. Probably reacted in a way we aren’t proud of, and would be ashamed to have anyone witness much less record and post online. I’ve done it in the past, and unless you’re a totally perfect person with zero emotions, you’ve probably done it too. To be clear: the fact that we’ve all done it is still not a defense of ANY behavior like that. This is still abusive and it’s still wrong. I’m only saying this because we all probably know what it feels like to realize you’ve fucked up and done the wrong thing by the horse. It feels totally shit. Or at least, it should.

To me the difference is what happens AFTER that moment. Do you fess up to it, admit you were wrong, apologize, feel ashamed, and vow to do better next time? Or do you double down and say that the horse deserved it, you did nothing wrong, and go out and do it again the next day?

It also matters what else happens in ADDITION to that moment. What else is going on behind the scenes? Is this standard behavior and you just finally got caught, or was it a very rare fuck up? How many provable instances of this behavior exist? Is it a pattern or is it an anomaly? In the cases of people like Marilyn Little or Andy Kocher, the absolute biggest part of my issue with them was the fact that the abuses were repeated over and over and over ad nauseum with absolutely no remorse, regret, acknowledgement of wrong-doing, or attempt to prevent a repeat scenario. Their only regret was getting caught. I’m very willing to recognize the fact that people make mistakes – bad ones, indefensible ones – and be able to move on from it. I’m very unwilling to forgive and forget the ones that seem pleased with themselves for their abhorrent behavior, and the people who enable/encourage/defend it.

As it stands now, I have yet to see any other evidence of instances like this from Mark Todd. Do they exist? Possibly. I don’t know the man, and I think there are probably only a handful of people on this earth that have spent enough time with him behind closed doors to know for sure. Is this incident enough to give me pause and make me wary? Absolutely. But I also think that if a genuine lesson has been learned and there is genuine shame and remorse and a genuine effort to do and be better, forgiveness is fair. People definitely have to be allowed to make mistakes… lord knows we all have. Whether or not he earns that grace is up to him IMO, from this point forward, and only time will tell.

What I really hate most is all those excuses I see people making, especially the pros. Let’s call a spade a spade here guys, this was an abusive and ugly and unnecessary incident. The industry is evolving (and MUST evolve if it wants to survive) from “training techniques” like this, and no one should defend this kind of crap, period. Also ridiculous to veer off course and attack the credibility or intentions of the girl who posted the video, or shrug and say that successful riders get a free pass to do what they want, etc. This is the EXACT SAME mindset that allows abuse of both horses and humans to perpetuate in our sport. Hold people accountable. Stop making excuses for bad behavior. If people fuck up, let them know they fucked up, let them deal with their own consequences, and let their own subsequent actions decide whether or not they’re worthy of redemption. Why do we seem to think that a certain subset of people are beyond reproach?

For as bad as it makes equestrians look as a whole, I do think that having stuff like this come to light and have all this drama about it on social media can be a good thing – IF we (collectively) learn from it. How not to behave. How not to handle a training issue. How to handle mistakes with grace. Maybe think twice before we do something similar in a fit of anger and frustration. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll make people less hesitant to speak up in defense of their horses if they ever find themselves in a similar situation, even if it means standing up to a big name rider.

How do I personally feel about Mark Todd after this? He’s on a bit of a “probation” period in my mind. I’m definitely not ready to sharpen up my pitchfork and add him to the list of the repeat or most egregious offenders, but there’s no doubt that he’s done a bad thing. I do appreciate that he was horseman enough to admit it and apologize, and I think that’s a positive step. From this point on, my opinion of him rests entirely in his hands. Will he come back from this and prove that he’s worthy of being called a legend? We’ll see. Right now he’s simply a successful rider that has also made a bad mistake, and I would love to see people stop making excuses for it.

32 thoughts on “The Same Old Excuses Need Not Apply

  1. Saying “I’ve seen worse” is… not the defense people think it is. I also saw a statement from Phoebe Buckley basically defending it by saying that if he didn’t whip the horse into the water, then the horse would know it could say “no” and we can’t have that, now can we. And while I can intellectually understand that mindset, I have no respect for it. How many rotational falls could be prevented if the horse said “no” to jumping from an unsafe distance or when they’re exhausted? It’s basically saying you want a slave, not a partner. If that’s your wish, get a motorcycle or a dirt bike and leave the horses alone.

    A lot of these incidents of abuse/mistreatment are so depressing, not just because they happened, but from all the people who defend them. All I can do is hope that those mindsets are disappearing and the new mindsets are better for the horses and the sport.

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    1. Yeah my thing is that horses usually say no for a reason. Whether it’s rider error, or a lack of the horse understanding the question, or them not being ready for it, or pain, or whatever. And you’re totally right, when we tell a horse that NO isn’t ever an acceptable answer, you start to override their natural sense of self-preservation, which isn’t a good thing. Especially on an eventer. There are better smarter ways to address this other than brute force.

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      1. Someone pointed out that the horse took a couple funky steps when coming through the water both times. Easy to infer that the horse might be saying no due to physical discomfort, or the footing in the water could have been questionable. The horse continued to hesitate every single time, even after the method was deployed. Saying no is often a method of self preservation, which seemingly is valued in event horses but not leveraged or understood nearly enough in other disciplines.

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    2. Renee thank you for saying so eloquently exactly how I feel. I listened to a podcast this week that basically said it wasn’t that bad, Mark’s a good person who shouldn’t be “canceled,” and we are making too big a deal about it. This was from people in the industry and it was so upsetting. The defense I see on social media is truly sad.

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  2. I feel like this is a dirty little secret nobody talks about, but it’s more common than anyone wants to admit. I think back to my early days riding (early 80’s), I remember being ushered out of the barn while my trainer “worked” with my pony a few times. As I got older and became more aware of what was really happening, I got scared. I left aggressive trainers.
    This is probably pretty naive if me, but why does this keep happening? I’m absolutely with you that I hope this is a singular mistake Mark made. Tonight I’m going to stuff my horse with a few more cream pies & remember to be patient when he flat our refuses to cross the horse eating puddles in the pasture.

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    1. I think in the old days this WAS the way people trained horses. Over, under, or through, no other choice or out come the whips. I know that’s the way I was taught from the beginning – the horse must submit. But sport is evolving, society is evolving, and we sure better evolve right along with it. We owe that much to our horses at least. I think we’re kind of in that weird space between the old guard (who sees this stuff as perfectly normal and acceptable) and the newer guard, that realizes we can not continue to exist as a sport if this is what we think is normal.

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  3. I was hoping you would write about this. With you 100% on all points, especially about the people who are caught up on this being 2 years ago and framing it as some kind of hit job, as if that negates what happened in the video. Someone else said “good luck getting clinics with top riders anymore,” and um, if that’s how they’re going to treat my horse, that’s totally fine with me. We as an industry need to do better, there is no room for that kind of behavior.

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    1. Yeah, for real. I’m sorry but I don’t care if the Pope himself showed up for a clinic – you take a whip to my horse like that and I’m not gonna tolerate it. That said, I’m a 38 year old that’s seen a few things by now, not a kid or meek young adult, and I know for a fact that younger meeker me would have allowed it, because that version of me was not always the best steward for her horse. Luckily I’ve grown since then, and I will absolutely (and HAVE, in the past) walk out of a lesson where I feel like my horse is not being treated fairly. We owe it to our horses to do that. But also, these professionals owe it to EVERYONE to not put people in that situation in the first place. They should know better, and do better. If they refuse to do so, maybe this isn’t the right profession for them.

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  4. Agree 100%. Well said.

    The longer video, the one you have linked, looks worse than the shorter clip that just showed the beating. The horse is *NOT* having issues, at all! Lovely, forward, willing. I want two just like this. Rider also doing well. Hand, balance, leg all look good. Feet a bit in chair position, which is a good safe position for a drop.

    It is only when MT attacks the horse with no provocation whatsoever that the horse melts down on the top of the bank. Exactly what most horses would do in the same circumstances. That is the only time that the rider suddenly stops riding, as it were. Leg comes off, although she does well keeping the horse pointed forward.

    And the beating is horrendous – it is a full-on beating. Todd is swinging with all his strength and he connects with the horse NINE TIMES. The tenth stroke doesn’t connect because the horse has slid down off the bank to get away from him. You can *hear* the whip strokes and it is horrifying. Another nearby horse spooks away from the sight and sound of the beating.

    Sometimes an incident is called out that has some elements of vagary or question mark. This isn’t one. There is no doubt what MT did, how abusive it was, and no justification of any kind.

    The horse had not shown a speck of resistance before MT jumped at him from behind with the switch. Until then the horse was beautifully, politely forward. The rider may have been anxious, but she didn’t show it, she was riding well enough. Until MT attacked her horse, when she stopped everything.

    However great a rider, trainer and instructor MT has been through the decades, maybe this comes down to acknowledging that we have behind us generations of training by force and fear. Many of us have witnessed and even been taught to practice behavior like this. I hope there is so much less of that now, with more enlightened (and more effective) training, and re-thinking by older riders/trainers. But those of us who did grow up with and train with the generations of the MT’s of the world saw plenty of incidents — although this one incident is egregious even beyond most of what I personally have seen.

    I cannot imagine what MT was thinking – or teaching. I can find no rationale for his actions, based on what could be seen in the longer video.

    I see only that the crowd was laughing and cheering. Maybe that is the worst damage that MT did — demonstrate and encourage this behavior from those he was teaching. Who may now think this is ok, this is the thing to do.

    The rider did not laugh or cheer. There is no way to know what she was thinking or feeling as she didn’t show it to be seen on the video. Other than what she chooses to share now. But her one verbal exchange while MT was beating her horse at the top of the bank seemed unhappy and bothered,. Can’t understand what she said, though. I can only imagine how troubled, conflicted and confused she must have felt after that incident with a revered rider/trainer like Mark Todd. But she will have to say for herself.

    Long ago I learned the hard way not to go to clinics just because a big name that I had admired in 5* videos was the clinician. It might be the riding experience of a lifetime, or it might end up feeling disappointed and shaken by the behavior, attitudes and practices of a big name in the sport.

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    1. I watched it without sound because I’m at work (erm, totally working…) but I noticed all the visual things you did. The first time through, early in the video, when he just rushes up behind the horse with the branch as its going through the lower section, my first thought was, “Why? The horse’s isn’t resisting. At all. Rushing up behind like that is just asking to get hurt!” Even on the bigger bank, the horse was skeptical but willing and given another second before MT came in likely would have hopped right down, I think. Maybe not prettily, maybe not as responsive as MT wanted, but the horse wasn’t showing obvious signs of resistance.

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  5. I am so frustrated with the people blasting the young woman/rider for “not stopping it if she didn’t like it.” I know I’m not alone is standing by in stunned silence while my horse is mistreated by a trainer. Those moments plague me and I deeply regret my inaction–I can see how it is interpreted as tacit acceptance, but I feel it’s much more complex than that. There’s a power dynamic between teacher/clinician and student and regrettably this doesn’t always bode well for the horse. This isn’t an excuse. We ALL owe it to our horses to act (and insist others act) in their best interest, but sometimes it takes time and perspective to find our voice and recognize how to do better.

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    1. As someone who is naturally shy and was raised to have a healthy respect for authority, I know for a fact that when I was younger I would not have stopped it either. These days I absolutely would (and it took a few incidents that I am not proud of to make me learn how to be a better steward for my horses) but 15 years ago? No, I wouldn’t. Because of exactly what you say. At the end of the day, the professional that shows up to teach the horses and riders is the one that is ultimately responsible for their own behavior.

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  6. Matt Brown mentioned dog training in passing. Watch dog agility trials. No whips, no beating, no physical force of any kind. The dogs are not even physically connected to the owner but are doing it out of training and enjoyment.

    This sounds crazy today, but imagine a future where horses were ridden and competed bridleless and maybe just a bareback pad. And imagine how those future equestrians will think of today’s tack?

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    1. I’m not sure I’d ever compete that way (I don’t know I have THAT much trust), but I’ve ridden bareback and bridleless just for fun quite a few times. It’s so rewarding to have my horse do what I ask because she wants to!

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    2. There has been a massive sea change in dog training. And you might be surprised how many agility trainers (both professional and amateur) rely on negative reinforcement techniques at home still. It took DECADES for dog training to realize that positive reinforcement was just as, if not more, effective than negative. The equine industry is even more resistant to that idea because “horses aren’t pets they are huge dangerous animals”. I sadly think we will never see this exterminated in the industry.

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  7. I hadn’t realized until later that the video was actually about Mark Todd. Shortly after I read Kate Samuels’ article, and she hit the nail on the head about so many points – the rider not speaking up, allowing horses to say no, having a partner not a robot, horses intentionally trying to be “bad” – she wrote that so much better than anything I could’ve articulated. I know as a younger person I wouldn’t have stopped it. I was taught not to question authority, and I wasn’t always the best steward of my horse.
    I completely agree with you tho – those comments were NUTS. I certainly was also disturbed by the comments of how the horse was being nasty and horrible and needed a “talking to” with the branch. I don’t understand those comments at all. I read the one as well about you can’t let the horse say no, god forbid, and the one about the rider not feeling it had been a big deal, and only stepping forward after 2 years to ruin Mark Todd’s life. In response to that I will quote a poem I recently heard – “When it happened, why didn’t you fight? I’m fighting now.”
    I’m hoping that was an isolated incident, but I don’t know. He’s on a bit of “probation” in my mind too after that.

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    1. Agreed – But the thing about the full video is that it shows a lovely, forward, willing horse.

      The short video was so focused on just the moment, I think many of us filled in some facts out of our own minds. This kind of thing happens when a horse is backwards and recalcitrant.

      But this horse was not! He was doing beautifully! The horse didn’t stop until MT jumped him from behind. Most horses will put on the brakes then, its an instinctive reaction to resist being driven into danger.

      I don’t know if MT thought he needed to put on a show, if he had been told “it’s coming, the horse is a stopper”. I just don’t understand why MT did this, there seems to be no need for it.

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  8. Amanda, you write so beautifully. Your arguments are so succinct. I think you should run for something. If only our politicians could state their positions as well as you. Bravo!

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  9. One point you made that I think deserves expansion is that people do lose their temper and they do make mistakes. To vilify someone for making a mistake (especially one that they own up to) is as logically wrong as blindly defending a repeat offender. Nobody goes through life without making mistakes, and to behave as though some people do will only encourage people to hide, deny, justify, and ignore those mistakes they (and others) do make. For a multitude of reasons, it makes things worse.

    I’m not sure if Mark Todd qualifies as having “just made a mistake” in this scenario – I need to do my own research (lol). But those people scrapping his entire career because of it are, I firmly believe, slowing the process of improving equine welfare and raining techniques.

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    1. Agreed on that point. That’s what I said that the “what comes after” is so important… i firmly believe that people should be allowed the chance to learn from it and redeem themselves. We’ll see what he does from here.

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    2. I don’t think his career is scrapped – yet. But I have deep and real concern that this is old common training technique that MT and people like him are continuing to pass into the sport.

      My concern is that this is not an isolated incident with MT. He gets the branch/switch ready long before the horse shows any signs of backwardness. In fact, the horse doesn’t shut down until MT goes after him on the last pass shown, the 5th time through the water. The horse was forward and willing, and gave no reason for MT to do this, imo. That’s a worry that this is an automatic go-to for MT … but we do need more info to make that conclusion.

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      1. Agreed. I haven’t watched more than the shortest clip of the video, nor do I have any direct knowledge or trusted accounts of his behavior outside of this clinic.

        I’ll admit that I’m really not going to follow this particular issue. Mark Todd was never at the top of my list of trainers I paid attention to. Call me naïve but he’d already moved past relevance in my mind. But I do appreciate that people like you (and Amanda) are considering this in a thoughtful and measured way, rather than just joining the mob screaming “disgusting traitorous monster!!!!!!!”

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        1. I’ve seen very little of that mob to be honest, on my end it’s mostly the behavior defenders. Might have something to do with the age and professions (horse people) of a lot of my Facebook friends though.

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  10. Well said! 👏👏👏

    I’ve tried to say as much in the couple social media conversations I got roped into, yet I couldn’t say it as well as you did.

    At the end of the day, it’s good that these things happen. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The herding behavior and division on the topic are temporary; a few years from now horse people will look back and wonder how anyone could have thought these types of reactions were okay. I say that as an imperfect horse person who has regrettably messed up and/or lost my temper at times, too.

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    1. Adding: when I said “it’s good these things happen” I meant that it’s good people’s mistakes get exposed and spur conversation. I realized after the fact that statement could be misconstrued.

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  11. He apologized, said it was wrong, and yet people are still trying to excuse it because of who he is? If they think he’s all that and he says he made a mistake, then why do they not pay attention and also learn from his mistake? Why make excuses for him? I think because all of us at some point have messed up – especially back in the days when such ‘training’ was encouraged and I for one hadn’t yet learned how to keep my emotions out of it. I’m with you on putting him on probation – but for the ones defending it I’m putting them on my ‘no fly’ list 😉

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  12. About 10 years ago I was boarding at this barn and there was a lesson going on, the kids pony was refusing to jump for the kid, pony was small, probably around 13hh and fine boned, the trainer (who was probably 5’8″ and at least 170lbs) got on this tiny pony and beat the living shit out of it everytime it refused to jump. I remember being completely mortified but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t say anything. I will say, my horse did not stay there for long after that (and I also didn’t have her ride my horse).

    On the flip side, the other day my ankle was really bothering me and my dog was dragging me around not listening to me to not pull and I yanked her back and yelled at her. I felt so bad about it I cried to my coworkers 😭

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  13. Honestly the best thing (but also the saddest) about this whole incident is all the trainers I can cross off my list of “would ride with in the future.” Can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen post things like, “I’m sure we’ve all done worse to get a horse in the trailer” and “This was hardly a tap. I’ve done more.” Ugh, disgusting. Way to out yourself.

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  14. I just need to thank Amanda for the post and all the commenters for restoring some of my faith in humanity and the horse world. I’m nearly in tears reading all these comments that the industry needs to change. Bravo!

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  15. I watched the other day and was shocked – Not really positive that I wanted to wade into the mess that would surely ensue, but here goes: I was fine with the first ‘help’ – when there was no contact and just some rustling of leaves. It was very similar to how you would use a horsemanship flag. I can clearly see the horse hesitate, and there is a lot of ground that isn’t covered in the video before this piece( about 50 seconds? of video?), so I cannot make a judgement if the horse was positive and forward and happy before MT stepped in with the branch on the small water entry.

    And then he made what I consider the first mistake – told her to come to the bigger one. The horse was still sticky off the little one, so going bigger seems like a really poor decision. Why go there at all? Just find the place on the small one where you can be successful for the day and leave it. And he followed up that poor decision by going all out and beating the horse. I was horrified….enough so that I cannot watch that part again. I’ve always though more of MT than that: Not sure why as I don’t know much of his actual training techniques. I’ve always thought of him a bit like Joe Fargis (dear god, please no one tell me the bad things about Joe Fargis.)

    There is no excuse for the second set of decisions. I don’t think it puts MT in the same ranks as the serial offenders, but it’s a flag. It’s one of those things that you hold on to and keep an eye on. It shouldn’t be excused and people trying to need to stop putting people on pedestals. Everyone makes mistakes with horses, even the big names and we don’t need to excuse those mistakes. They need to be accountable and then we give them a chance to show it was a mistake and not a pattern. The only way to be better is to acknowledge when we aren’t, and then do better going forward.

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