-- Editorial first published in our Newsletter on 24 November 2023. Sign up for free if you want to receive a weekly mailing with a short blog.
The highly anticipated documentary "Operation X: Secrets of the Horse Billionaire" aired this week on Danish commercial television and it has sent a shockwave through the dressage world, although some consider it mere ripples. While the abuse, torture, and malpractice seen and condoned in the world of endurance, saddle seat and Western riding are far worse, let's not get caught up in "whataboutism". The industry is being forced to take a closer look at one's own practices and self-reflect. Am I a good horse person, do I need to use so much force, kicking and pulling when I ride a horse. Is it truly necessary?
Eurodressage has mainly covered the reactions (article 1 - article 2) to the documentary as the two episodes were not available outside Denmark. However, the clips TV2 Denmark shared of spur wounds, whip marks, and violent riding in draw reins were highly disturbing, but those deeply embedded in the industry shrug their shoulders and call it usual business. This type of riding happens almost everywhere with the old-fashioned mojo of "wild horses need to be tamed by force" refusing to die. Even the FEI issued a lukewarm statement that says nothing.
Andreas Helgstrand suffers from "Tall Poppy Syndrome": his stellar rise on the scene as a megalomaniac horse dealer making millions by the minutes made him a very high tree that catches all the wind. From selling horses to billionaires, to buying young stallions for (fake) multi-million euro amounts at auctions - breeders, horse owners, breed societies all fell in love with his charisma and rode on his financial wave. Andreas sailed to America like Columbus and conquered Wellington, but it all seems to have blown up in his face. His farm in Wellington has been sold (albeit for a good profit), the show grounds in Wellington are for sale, not a single new stallion has been bought at the licensing this year, he hardly presented any colts himself and his October auctions of the chaff in his collection made unimpressive headlines in the media.
The outrage to the documentary is hypocritical. All these riders who are now posting statements that they "distance themselves from these violent acts of ridings" have for years been leaching on his success as a horse dealer and stallion owner. They were as rabid as Swifties buying tickets to her concerts, taking clients to Denmark and getting rewarded with fat commission fees. Now they bite the hand that fed them for years! Ridiculous. It's pure window dressing.
Also the outrage to what happened at the yard. "Oh my god, I never expected this!" Really? Helgstrand has had several blow-ups with unfriendly horse riding over the years: the rollkur incident with Torveslettens Stamina, his student and employee Thomas Sigtenbjerggaard with Nintendo, the incident with Akeem Foldager, and who has forgotten the reverse piaffe of Marron at the CDIO Aachen, the horse which couldn't cope with the pressure of high performance sport? And what about Jovian being pushed to Grand Prix level at age 8. He can't piaffe because the horse has no notion of true collection. Why the rush? Why not wait until such a tall horse turns 10 and is given the time to get stronger and more mature? No, there is nothing new there. Andreas always presented mega spectacular and talented horses that couldn't cope with tension.
Maybe the biggest lesson he could learn from this crisis situation is that "less is more"? Give horses time to grow, time to learn, time to mature, time to collect, time to carry oneself, and where mistakes are made (as we all are human), time to heal.
And who's accountable for this? They buyers who keep buying from him? The trainers who keep sending their clients there to strike up commission fees? Or the judges who keep rewarding famous riders on spectacular horses even though the tension and sweat are dripping off the horses, the mouths are dead or so wide open you can see the letter A from C? Another major issue is that activists who believe dressage should be about neck rings, bitless bridles, and lots of patting, call everything hyperflexion as soon as the nose comes behind the vertical. Rollkur, hyperflexion and LDR (Low Deep Round) have been wrongfully heaped together and equalised as animal abuse. This minority group is growing and their voice gets louder. Watch out or equestrian sport will completely lose its social licence to operate and then we're all broke.
The amount of times I have been asked to save the dressage world is uncountable. Can't you publish this, can't you write about this? You should expose all these riders by taking photos and films in the warm-ups! It's your journalistic duty to be a whistleblower (and get bankrupted by lawsuits)! No, for over 25 years I have always firmly believed that top sport can only be changed in one way: better judging. As long as judges reward tense and mechanically moving marionette horses at top sport level, dressage can not improve from the top down.
-- Astrid Appels