Fate has thrown another road block into the path of 2010 World Champion dressage horse Totilas.
Since sweeping all three dressage events at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, the black Dutch Warmblood stallion has endured a change of owners, a change of nationality, a change of stables, prolonged speculation and secrecy over the identity of his new rider, a second change of stabling, a change of veterinarian, farrier, and groom,? the introduction of his new rider, inconsistent (compared to his past) competition scores, a leg injury, a foot abscess, a change to bar shoes, and finally in July, the announcement that his new rider, Matthias Rath, had been taken ill and would not be able to compete at Aachen or at the Olympics, should the stallion be named to the German team.
Along the way, Totilas and Rath endured criticism of the way the horse moved, the way Rath rode, and especially the way the horse was warmed up before classes. Totilas has kept up his day job of providing semen for the Schockemohle breeding business but show-ring miracles were expected of the world-famous horse, who was called the “Usain Bolt of horses”.
But all that was supposed to be behind Totilas. It just seemed like 2011 wasn’t his year. Along the way, the owners and Rath generously cooperated with photo sessions and videos. They allowed the press to show his lavish stable and training center. Children were allowed to visit the superstar.
In a bold move, the horse’s management team entered an agreement for the horse to begin training with his old trainer, Sjef Janssen of The Netherlands, later this month. On October 8, Rath shared news that he was recovered from his illness and had competed at a show with one of his horses.
“PETA attorney on Line One”
Was there anything that Rath and Totilas hadn’t endured? Yes, there was: an attack from the international powerhouse of animal rights publicity campaigners, the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
PETA announced this weekend that they were “seeking charges” against the owners of Totilas for improper training using the rollkur method of overbending and riding the horse, especially in warmup before a class, on a very tight rein. A five-minute video of Totilas warming up at a dressage competition is shown on the PETA web site.
PETA described rollkur as “systemic over-stretching of the neck”. The bulk of their press statement expounds the evils of rollkur, including the statement that “the application of rollkur is extremely painful for horses and can cause permanent physical damage.”
They also claim that the horse is suffering abuse because he is kept in an isolated box stall, and is not allowed to fraternize with other horses or move freely on his own. PETA feels that this is in violation of Germany’s Animal Welfare Act.
The press release ends with the ominous statement “PETA has filed criminal charges, therefore.” It is possible that something was lost in translation, since it doesn’t explain what PETA’s law enforcement powers are in Germany.
PETA has also called for a nationwide ban on rollkur in Germany and tighter controls at dressage competitions. The German National Federation is ahead of PETA there, however: rollkur is not sanctioned by the German Equestrian Federation.
The mainstream press in Germany, as well as the equestrian press, has covered the PETA announcement. Very little of the press coverage is available in English, however almost all of the articles simply re-state the charges from the press release.
Why, you might ask, is PETA concerned with a single pampered dressage stallion when thousands of horses are suffering all sorts of abuse and neglect?
Because that’s what PETA does. There are many ways to effect change, but one of the quickest is a high-profile assault through the media. PETA very carefully chooses its targets for the most effective return on the investment of publicity. Win or lose, PETA has opened all the doors and parted the drapes of the house of dressage to public scrutiny and perhaps even to increased regulation or oversight.
It’s possible that nothing will come of these charges, as is so often the case. But the sport horse world has now seen that it is not immune to attacks from outside its tribe.
It’s impossible to say what the ultimate legacy of the great horse Totilas may turn out to be. None of us expected such a twisty, turny road for the horse. As it turns out, we all may be riding along with him in ways we never imagined.
Hang on tight.