Horse Politics: Identifying the Enemy in a Streaming Video World of Ag-Gag Bills and Fine Print on Tickets

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by Fran Jurga

Ropers pursue a horse in an event in Oregon; the idea is to rope the horse around the neck before roping the legs and bringing it down. (Creative Commons image provided by the Animal Law Coalition)

Ropers pursue a horse in an event in Oregon; the idea is to rope the horse around the neck before roping the legs and bringing it down. (Creative Commons image provided by the Animal Law Coalition)

You have a powerful tool, and it's probably in your pocket or in your purse right now. It's your SmartPhone, and pointing it horses may get you into a lot of trouble in some states.

Just ask Adam Fahnestock. A volunteer with the organization Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), Adam was arrested this weekend for videotaping a horse roping/tripping event at the Big Loop Rodeo in Jordan Valley, Oregon. The Big Loop, like some other rodeos, prohibits videotaping.

A bill to prohibit the event known as "horse roping" passed the Oregon state Senate last month and is headed to the House of Representatives. Opponents call it "horse tripping", but you can decide. The idea is to rope a horse by its neck and then rope the legs, to make it fall. But, at this point, it is not illegal in Oregon to participate in the event.

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There's no doubt that the videos of this "sport" posted on YouTube and used by opponents show the worst-case scenarios of horse roping, and that is what people are being asked to judge--because it is all that they are shown. It's difficult for people to make a judgment without actually going to a rodeo and watching it in person, since charged emotions on both sides of the issue are hard at work to paint convincing pictures of skilled sport vs. outright cruelty.

Opponents of horse roping point out that the most skilled ropers are at the biggest rodeos, and that the worst problems are at small rodeos, where no one's watching. Or videoing, either.

[VIDEOSINGLE type="youtube" keyid="TzfJHXXft6M", width="560", height="344"]

Horse tripping may soon be banned in Nevada, as this news video explains.

Note: As of May 16, the House version of the Oregon horse tripping law was still in committee and had not come up for a vote before the entire body, according to A similar law is under consideration in Nevada where the Nevada Media Alliance reports that the State Senate Bill 72 had passed in committee and will next be voted on by the full Assembly.

If you're going to many horse events in the United States, it might be a good idea to forget that your phone has a video camera in it. Not only do horse events fear that spectators will capture an inopportune moment and post it on YouTube, they also often have iron-clad contracts with official photographers and video producers who object to anyone taking photos of anything.

And they might have legal policies that would tarnish your resume if you're apprehended.

I was recently told that I simply could not take any photos at a large hunter/jumper show, in spite of having media privileges. Only the contract photographer could take photos of anything on the grounds that would appear in print or on the Internet, and I would need to purchase photos from that firm.

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Undercover videotaping in the horse world has helped to expose the vicious treatment of Tennessee Walking horses. YouTube videos started a worldwide protest movement against rollkur, or hyperflexion, of dressage horses during warmup. We're asked all the time to look at a video to decide if we think an event horse has been ridden to the point of exhaustion, if a dressage horse's noseband is too tight, or a horse is overbitted, or a rider is too heavy for a horse, or if a judge should be dismissed for allowing a lame horse to be presented. Wild horse advocates tape roundups and penning activities from as close as the BLM will allow them to come. Opponents of fox hunting, horse racing, shoeing of horses and any number of activities involving horses can use video to their advantage.

Undercover videos can be indictments of riders and cowboys that will sting their reputations for years to come. Outrage over alleged rollkur violations in the warmup area at the 2012 London Olympic Games included charges that still photos can be deceiving, edited or simply victim of super-fast shutter speeds on modern digital cameras that freeze a horse in motion, although the horse wasn't held in that position.

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Yet the camera doesn't lie when it captures the bloodied flanks of a polo pony where spurs have dug in--just ask Prince Harry. It doesn't lie when it catches a farrier hitting a horse with a rasp. But it also doesn't always tell the whole story, either, and video can be edited to emphasize a point being made. In some cases, the activist Epona,tv crew in Europe has even offered to share its raw, unedited video to prove its honesty.

Banning citizen videotaping comes in many forms. Some conferences ban videotaping of lectures and demonstrations to protect the integrity of speakers and to keep the conversations candid.

Rodeo is a sport that struggles mightily between enthusiastic fans and determined protestors--both of whom want to point their video cameras at the arena.

The Cheyenne Frontier Days has a video policy that may not be enforcable, but it states exactly how the organizers see the issue: Yes, you can videotape the rodeo. But there are strings attached: "You may use photographs, videotape or digital images obtained from Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo solely for private or personal, non-commercial purposes only. Any other use, including for any commercial, issue advocacy or fundraising purposes, is strictly prohibited without our express prior written consent."

Road to the Horse, a horse-training competition held at the Kentucky Horse Park in March, states simply on their web site: "Those caught video recording the event will be asked to leave." At some academic and professional conferences, event organizers reserve the right to confiscate video equipment and hold it until the event ends.

Whenever the subject comes up, event organizers insist that they have nothing to hide. The prohibition of videotaping is usually rooted either in the contract terms with an official videographer or the advice of legal counsel. When working with animals, anything can happen, and events would rather that a runaway or a freak accident or an equipment malfunction not be caught on tape. That lack of transparency, however, comes under the heading of darned-if-you-do-darned-if-you-don't management policies.

If the Boston Marathon had prohibited spectator videos, the bombers might never have been caught.

A bigger issue that has surfaced in several states is what do about undercover videos filmed to expose animal abuse on private property. Many legal entities come to the surface on this issue.

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In Tennessee, where the landmark undercover HSUS video of a Walking horse trainer made national television and led to the conviction of the trainer on animal cruelty violations, the governor recently vetoed a video "ag-gag" bill after it was passed by the state legislature. Television talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was one of many celebrities who took to the air to urge the governor to veto the bill.

Read Governor Haslam's statement on why he vetoed the bill.

Similar bills have been introduced in 12 other states. According to the Food Rights Network, ?Arkansas SB13 makes an "improper animal investigation" by someone who is not a "certified law enforcement officer" a Class B misdemeanor (with the potential for a civil penalty of $5,000); it was?signed into law in April.

An Indiana bill, SB373, passed both the House and Senate, but differences between the two versions passed were?not resolved?by the closure of the legislative session April 29. A California bill was withdrawn by its sponsor "amid stiff and growing opposition," according to the?Associated Press.

Most people are in favor of open videotaping until their sport, breed or event is smeared in the press--with YouTube videos to back up the charges. When you buy a ticket for a show or event, check the fine print on the event website and be prepared to comply with their policies if you want to enjoy the show. There's no doubt that court cases will challenge ag-gag laws and no-video event policies but you probably don't want to be the test case. If you feel strongly about what you believe to be animal abuse, work hard as an advocate and support reputable organizations that are likely to have an impact on your behalf.

If you insist on taking matters into your own hands with your own camera, know the risks you are taking, which may be growing every day. Keep reality in focus when you point your camera at an animal.

Keep up with Fran Jurga's reporting on equestrian issues on her Facebook page.