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.

  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.

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