Greed in Full View. Shameful Saddlebred Stuff

Emily Thomas Luciano is an accomplished rider as well as our talented marketing director. Read more. In this guest column, murfreesboroshe discusses her observations at a host of showing events around the southeastern U.S.  Thanks, Emily!

She writes:

Over the past year, I’ve traveled to horse shows and equine trade shows across the country. I’ve seen how equestrians from all different disciplines show, groom, ride, and care for their horses. Though I’ve been impressed with some of what I’ve seen, one major question plagues me— who is the real winner in our industry? Is it us? Or is it the horse?

I’ve seen horses started at 18 months so that they’re ready for races and futurities. I’ve seen horses shown until they are so swayed-back that I’d be embarrassed to have them in my front pasture.

Why does this happen? In my opinion, show world greed is the catalyst. Horse owners are on a quest for shiny buckles, blue ribbons, and the winner’s circle.

Emily Luciano performs at Extreme Mustang Makeover with Gus

Emily Luciano performs at Extreme Mustang Makeover with Gus

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-showing. In fact, I love to show! I’ve competed in four different Extreme Mustang Makeovers, have competed in obstacle and trail challenges, and even have done a handful of western pleasure classes. I love to work toward a goal with my horse. Showing is fantastic as long as the welfare of the horse comes first.

But some things irk me:

I didn’t see one fuzzy muzzle at any of the equine events I attended this year. A horse needs vibrissae (whiskers) intact so he can feel where he cannot see and not injure his nose or mouth. I prefer fuzzy ears and unclipped fetlocks for the same reason. Read more here.

Sometimes I want to troll up and down the barn aisles with a megaphone saying, “Those horses need those whiskers! And hairy ears keep the bugs out and keep them warm! And feathery fetlocks will properly shed rain!”

Trimming and clipping soon became least of my concerns. What horrified me most was the Saddlebred scene:

Swayback Saddlebred

Swayback Saddlebred

At one particular event – a huge, championship show drawing scores from around the Southeast – we brought a few of our mustangs for a separate event. The mustangs were furry and winter-coated. Their condition contrasted starkly with these clipped, statuesque equines being led around with chains across their noses (sometimes with two handlers)

The first horse to shock me was in a driving class. (I say that because there is no way he could have been saddled to ride.) His back looked like a canyon. I’m no biomechanics expert, but I suspect this is the result of his handlers cranking his head, neck, and poll at unnatural angles. For years.

As I strolled the show grounds over the next several days with my mustangs, I caught myself with my mouth open more than once. First, the stall decorations: I’ve never seen so much

In whose best interest?

In whose best interest?

effort thrown toward something so superficial.

  • One farm brought in hedges to encase their row of stalls.
  • Another brought in gas lamps…GAS LAMPS! and a trophy room, complete with haute couture, life-sized images of the owner in a gown of feathers, posed with their horses.

On the next to last day of the show, I had evening duty with our mustangs and needed to walk through several other barns to reach our truck. En route, I saw horses stalled for the night with blankets, full harnesses, cribbing collars, and what I perceived as buckets on their tails.

After some research, I learned these tail buckets were called “bustles.” If you’ve never seen a plastic tail bustle, imagine a two-gallon bucket fixed to the tail head and strapped to a full harness. These horses were stalled overnight in this contraption. I was horrified.

Saddlebred Bustle contraption

Saddlebred Bustle contraption

I asked one groom why on earth the poor horse was put up like that. His response? So he didn’t rub his tail.

Why would he feel the need to rub his tail?

Well, it’s a poorly kept secret in the Saddlebred industry that handlers will put ginger paste or some other kind of burning substance under the tail so the horse keeps his tail away from his body. This isn’t practiced by everyone, but it’s more common than we might think.

I wasn’t blind to the looks I got with my rangy-looking horses. These show elites looked down their noses as my mustangs plodded behind me in their rope halters on a loose lead, unclipped, and head low. They’d be shocked to learn that it was me who was the critical one.

I’m not painting everyone who shows with the same brush. But, I do think it’s high-time that we, as a horse community, evaluate our priorities, especially in the show arena. Whether you show Quarter horses, Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers or race horses, let’s put the horse first.

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  1. Emily you know I agree with you on many issues with our horses and on some issues not so much. That said, knowing you personally I know you want the best for all horses. I do not like many things that are done for shows such as the stacked/weighted shoes, tail harnesses, ginger, etc… I do NOT like horses being started under saddle as long yearlings, 2 year olds and even at 3 years old with many. I rarely started any of my own before they were in their 4th year of life. They need time to mature. I understand the clipping issues you talk about and I agree to the point that when not showing leave the whiskers and definitely the ear hair but I will clip for shows. None of us are going to agree 100%. We all just need to agree to not abuse our horses and care for them properly.

  2. Actually what you saw on the American Saddlebred was a tailset with a roll top or spooned metal crupper. Morgans wear a tailset with a bustle (which is a large overstuffed crupper like what is on a driving harness). The bucket is a crude way to try to keep the horse from rubbing it’s tail or rubbing the set off because, no surprise, the tailsets are uncomfortable or even painful to the horse if it has a sore tail.

    Please go to to see pictures and videos of mutilated tails from the tail cutting and tail setting procedure. This disgusting practice is legal in most areas of the USA and is endorsed by the USEF.

    There is a new Proposed Rule Change at the USEF to BAN all forms of tail alteration in all breeds covered by the USEF. If you are a USEF member, please comment your support for the proposed rule change. Even if you are not a member, you can send an email condemning these tail alterations.

    There is also a petition that you can sign urging the USEF to ban horse tail alterations.

  3. I fully agree with you on what you wrote. You know me and my baby Spanky Lee. The only thing I do is clip his bridle path. I really don’t care what others think about his whiskers or ears. I only blanket him when it is going to be below 30 and the only time I use a tail wrap and tail bag is when I trailer him. I know he is not the “best dressed” horse at a show, but I also believe he is happier.

  4. I’ve had horses for over 50 years and loved them even before then. Over the years, I’ve seen and learned a lot about what people will do to horses for the sake of trying to win some prestige and a ribbon. It doesn’t speak well for the human race.

    I’ve about come to the conclusion that competition corrupts, but I do find it refreshing when someone can go into a competitive situation and come out on top WITHOUT sacrificing the horse. Unfortunately, that is almost impossible with the way some breeds/shows/classes have been changed to be so artificial.

    Relatively new competitions such as Cowboy Dressage (not to be confused with Western Dressage), ranch horse riding (not to be confused with reining, cutting, or western classes) and trail obstacle competitions are refreshing because they have not (yet) developed the fads that will ultimately ruin them.

    There is so much information available now on horse handling, training, hoof care that it seems incomprehensible more people do try to do better by their horses. Thank you for your speaking up for the horse.

  5. You have a lot of your information 100% Wrong and it’s incredibly irresponsible of you to write this and literally have no idea what you are talking about. You have a lot of opinions about an area that you didn’t take the time to research properly.

    Incidentally, I noticed a picture of you and your horse balancing on a small table. Do you think your horse likes that? Perhaps you should also look into your practices as well.

    • Karen,

      I still stand by what I wrote. From the outside looking in, I find what I saw that day appalling, unnatural and selfish. I’m sure there are terrific saddlebred owners out there who don’t put their horses through the wringer for showing purposes, but I didn’t see those. I’m an advocate for the horse. At that show, I saw horses who were the absolute definition of learned helplessness. And for what? A blue ribbon? Bragging rights? It broke my heart.

      And I’m 100% comfortable with my horse practices. The horse you’re referring to is my mustang, Gus. In that picture, he was 60 days from the wild. And believe it or not, he sought out that pedestal because he enjoyed the treats and praise that came after. To this day, he will seek out the pedestal if it’s out in the arena. So yes, I’d say he does. All I did was engage his curiosity and build upon it with positive reinforcement. All in a snaffle bit, on his clock, using trust. So, yes…I’m comfortable with my practices.

    • Agreed! Do some more research about the reason why they do this! I ride Saddlebreds and they all enjoy this because it was what they were bred to do. Also the horse on the table is just cruel.

  6. Emily,

    What you were seeing with those sway backed horses is not a result of work or their heads being cranked up. It is called Lourdosis and is a genetic thing. While they are not the prettiest horses to look at, most Lourdosis horses are riding sound our driving sound. Would it be mt preference to have one? no. Would I every breed a particular mare to a particular stallion again if they produced a foal with it? No. But you start right out of the gate with assumptions about something without asking anyone in the know what is going on. That makes the rest of your article seem less credible.

    • Thanks for the insight, Carra. In that case, it sounds a bit like quarter horse folks breeding horses that pass on HYPP. Doesn’t do anything to improve the breed.

  7. The horses don’t have their heads “cranked up” in unnatural ways. That is their natural head carriage. A quick Google search could have cleared that up for you before writing your peice. There is nothing cruel about it and they aren’t forced to hold their heads in unnatural ways.

    Why does it bother you so much that people decorated their stalls with bushes and lamps? Why was that note worthy?

    I am glad that not everyone walks around and without any knowledge or research and writes articles about things without knowing what is actually happening (for example head carriage, sway backs, etc). You have placed judgement on things you saw, based on a negative and uneducated view point. It is neglegent reporting and shouldn’t be permitted.

    • Karen,

      Your response to this article was refreshing after reading such a biased, uninformed published opinion. I was offended at the statements made assuming that saddlebred caretakers are borderline abusive or cause damage to the animals simply because you don’t understand these horses are naturally built with a longer, more upright neck. Lordosis is no fault of the Breeder, owner, or trainer, and often isn’t even preventable it just turns up and the horses can still be ridden or driven just as well as the next.

      Saddlebred owners don’t judge you for grooming and training your mustangs differently than we do, so don’t pass judgement on us for what you don’t understand

  8. I am relatively new to the horse world, having started lessons 3 1/2 years ago (English, because New England, with a goal of confident trail riding) as an older adult. I bought my lesson horse, a mare who came “off the truck” (aka horse dealer) from an auction in Pennsylvania. Because I’m an uninitiated adult, I get away with breaking a few rules, and I’m proud to say that it’s because of me that no one shaves their horse’s face or ears in my pretty big barn any more, even for competition. I learn things about the horse world on a daily basis, and I’m continually amazed that my smart little mare still puts up with my amateur attempts at communicating with her. After watching the WEG at Tryon (streamed), I realized that there’s so much I don’t know about higher level competition. So much. That said, I met a saddlebred barn owner this weekend in the Midwest (I’m a transplant from the Midwest) that made all my previous ethical concerns pale in comparison, and we didn’t even get into discussing soring or any of the other really terrible things this breed is known for. The show horses never leave their box stalls except to train, what 30 min a day?, because of the fear of ruining their giant shoes, long feet, or anything on their tails. They submit to TWO bits that absolutely make their heads unnaturally high and back. I was encouraged to try riding one of these beautiful and incredibly sweet animals, and had to be continually reminded by the barn owner to hold the reins with a fist (not the light finger hold on a French snaffle that I’m used to) at a 45 degree angle and to hold my hands very high and firmly, with absolutely no leg on the horse. With that unnatural gait (let’s not even talk about how they train them for their “5th gait” by making them unbalanced) they are forced to trot and canter while high stepping. It’s unbearable to watch. The flared nostrils and wild eyed demeanor with the tail unnaturally up — just gross. The shoes are unreal. The utter superficiality of this saddleseat show world in particular is nauseating. And indefensible. There is nothing wrong with primping, or training to the nth degree, or costumes (I mean is it a little bit Jon Benet Ramsey? Maybe.), but horses need to be horses, not toys.

    Thank you for publishing this piece. We can do better.

    • The American Saddlebred was bred to look how it looks today. If you look at the best horses in the show ring, and look back at Foal photos of them you can see that they have always been highstepping and highheaded since they were born. Their whites of their eyes are natural to be showing, bc most Saddlebred are born with a bright set of eyes. Yes, there may be a couple of unethical practices in saddleseat, but the same goes for every discipline. Just because we do not treat our horses differently then yours does not mean we are abusing our horses.

    • The American Saddlebred is born with that high stepping trot and canter that you saw. Also they are born with that natural head set and high held tail that you talked about. When you were riding all the things they told you were for a reason and some for the benefit of the horse. The one thing that bothers me the most about your post is that you did not get to discussing soring which this breed is known for. That statement is absolutely incorrect. People sired Tennessee Walking Horses, not Saddlebreds, in the Big Lick, also not Saddleseat. Although some people do cruel things to the Saddlebred most of us don’t. I bet that if you did the right research you can most definitely find out that people that abuse horses in almost every single discipline out there. Next time do some research and stop pointing fingers.

    • I have a saddlebred that was a mid five figure “ investment” for a group of folks at a show barn. I paid literally 2 figures after his throat surgery ( basically a hole inside his throat ), “ tack rein” , which is a rein imbedded with tacks to keep him moving straight, failed to work and he was deemed not fit to even be a lesson horse. He has a tail that literally was hacksawed BY A VET to fit into the crupper, bustle, whatever…. When you lift his tail, he tenses up expecting ginger to be inserted. This boy has been through it, is mentally scarred for life and yet is the funniest, sweetest horse I have ever had the pleasure of partnering with. Buck Brannaman said it correctly at a clinic that my gelding and I attended….” The person who did that to this horse should spend the rest of his/her life in prison”.
      I agree.

  9. My boyfriend works for a saddlebred barn and they are doing a show in Missouri right now. He called me saying that nearly every barn trainer is rubbing either ginger or salsa into their horse’s assholes and every horse has a broken tail to get it to sit higher. There are also a bunch of swayback horses. Horses with Lordosis should NOT be bred or shown, as this is a major breed fault, but people do it anyway for the ribbons.

  10. Wow. You’re hating on other equestrians. Why do you care if we put hedges outside of stalls.
    That back problem you saw- it is a genetic flaw in some saddlebreds. They can still lead a normal life with it. I would know because i have one.
    NO ONE puts ginger salve in the horses butts. Real saddlebreds naturally throw up their tails when excited.
    You’re being judgmental and clearly do not know anything about this discipline. Please do some research before you hate.

  11. Really Ava, NO ONE, guess it hurts to admit the truth of the matter, what about the overgrown hooves, and ridiculous shoes, seems to be a pretty clear case of animal abuse, you know what they say. “The truth hurts, but l guess if there’s a blue ribbon to be won, you can look in the mirror, and sleep well at night. As far as clear conscience, l guess you’ve got one of those, one thing for sure you’re trying to defend an indefensible position, a couple of lines from a poem l wrote for my wife when her Polish Arab endurance horse passed away. Majestic by nature, equine by birth, The nobleist of creatures, God’s gift to Mother Earth

  12. Emily, I think many have missed the point of your article” We Can Do Better”. I would like to think that no matter what discipline we all love our horses. In my profession we have something that we call sacred cows another words it is something that is done because it is always been done that way. We have now come to realize that in order to move forward and improve practice we need to evaluate what we do and consider what is the best practice. I encourage those of you out there to look at how we treat those animals we love and do the research. Remembering research is not just the opinion of a professional, that an opinion should be able to be backed up by validated research, and stand up to peer review. We do not have to defend best practice, research if done correctly will speak for itself. We should ask ourselves, the professionals, and governing bodies is this in the best interest of the horse? Would you what this done to you? As a society we get caught up in the politics, the blue ribbons and the economics forgetting why we gravitate to these wonderful animals. Be an advocate for those without a voice, life is a wonderful gift and horses are a blessing. If we reflect on our history the horse can tell us so much about human nature. We can do better, have the courage, be the change!

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