Equine animal welfare day at the University of Messina

Equine animal welfare day at the University of Messina

Equine Animal Welfare Day at the University of Messina.

After the cancellation of last February, caused by a sudden weather warning that imposed the closure of the University of Messina, June 13 was dedicated toteaching day about “Animal Welfare in Equestrian Activities”, addressed to students of the degree course in veterinary medicine. The Institute of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Messina organised the event in collaboration with the Sicilian Comity of F.I.S.E. (Italian Federation of Equestrian Sports), the Association SICILY, EQUESTRIAN PARK OF THE MEDITERRANEAN and A.R.A.C.S.I. (Association of Breeders of Sicilian Horse).

The event was divided into three parts. In the morning, thehistorical collaborator of CAVALLO MAGAZINE,Franco Barbagallo, carried out a theoretical-practical seminary with a multimedia presentation in the classroom, followed by a practical demonstration in round pen with his horse Zulù entitled “THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE FOUNDATIONS OF A SADDLE HORSE AND ITS SPECIALISATION IN PROFESSIONAL TREKKING FOR UNDERSTANDING AND NO LONGER FOR COERCION, USING THE GENTLE METHODS OF TRAINER ED DABNEY”. In the afternoon, a workshop was held in the lecture hall of the University attended by students, the Director of the Department of Veterinary Sciences, prof. Francesco Abbate, the ethologist Prof. Michele Panzera, the technical director of F.I.S.E. SicilyMario Roggio, the horse breeder Francesco Russo, as well as President of A.R.A.C.SI (Regional Association of Sicilian Horse Breeders) and Franco Barbagallo.

It was attended by 38 students, other 40 connected by streaming from other Italian offices of the International Veterinary Student Association by IVSA Messina.  It has attracted considerable interest in ethological and learning issues very specific and technical, from the birth of a foal until age four, to its specific professional use, in this case, in trekking. The initiative is part of the topics of studies in the field of veterinary ethology and animal welfare for future veterinary doctors,to provide knowledge on the impact that the equestrian activities of man have on a horse and on how it can and should always be held more into account his well-being before any other economic considerations and sporting results.

The theoretical exercise in the classroom.

Franco Barbagallo used his multimedia presentation with voice, photographs and videos. He began with a brief history of equestrian training from the most distant past to the present day, starting from the texts of Xenophon and the Normand Frederick the Second, from the golden age of the equestrian arts of the Neapolitan School in Naples, of the Academy of the Star in Messina and the Equestrian School of Versailles, through the brutal methods of cowboys, vaqueros and gauchos. Arriving at the Copernican revolution operated by the natives of North America and the influences of those who, first among the “whites”, began to change course in the last century and to the Dorrancebrothers and Ray Hunt, considered the founders of modern Natural Horsemanship. He then compared some specific aspects of training methods used by Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli and Stan Allen with the “gentle and emphatic” ones of Ed Dabney. Barbagallo then addressed the topic of “Communication with the horse” using the only language that a horse understands:  “the horse language”, the specific rules of partnership to be established, similar to those between any teacher and student. Rulesthat, in the place of strong leadership and dominance,are the basis of a relationship with“authoritativeness” and not “authoritarianism”, with mutual respect and trust between teacher and pupil, with precise rules to be always respected“in any case”, starting from the teacher.

The presentation then introduced the “gentle” method of the “Six Keys to Harmony”, devised by Dabney to build “harmoniously” the foundations of a saddle horse and then the training specifications to be followed to “send it to the University” to specialisethe horse in professional trekking. The final part was dedicated to solving the “ordinary and difficult” problems induced in the horse by man and how to solve and eliminate them. Thenwas presented the experience of the “Traina Farm Project”, a prototype “in progress” of a Sicilian horse farm with a circular economy that offers hospitality and tourist services, breeds and trains its horses from birth with Ed Dabney’s methods, use them for their riding trips for its customers and sells them already very well trainedto “enlightened” riders.

The practical exercise in the field.

In the round pen of the Equestrian Centre existing inside the University, Franco Barbagallo and his beloved horse Zulù performed a demonstration both from the ground and from the saddle of Dabney’s method of the “Six Keys to Harmony”. He showed practically how to build “gently” the foundations of a saddle horse for understanding, without constraints, so that it acquires all the movements of the head, neck, front legs, back legs and rib cage necessary to be used in any equestrian discipline.
Two aspects were of particular interest. The first was teaching “every movement of the horse body” from the ground without a saddle(using only a rope halter and no other tools). So, once you put on the saddle later, everylearning with a rider on his backbecame easy and fluid.
The second was the part dedicated to how to have a horse really “in hand”, capable to read in the rider his high or low energy, the distribution of his weight, the positioning of its centre of gravity and the light movements of its handsto followto move around, at all the different speeds, with minimalist and extremely light uses of legs and reins.

Final workshop.

In the main hall of the faculty, prof. Francesco Abbate recalled how the University of Messina has just received the accreditation of the European Association of Establishments for Veterinary Education (EAEVE), counting it among the best veterinary departments in Europe, reaffirming, in this perspective of excellence aimed at the future, how important it is that animal welfare issues should be increasingly taken into account by future veterinary doctors and not only for horses. During the debate, following precise questions from the students, Professor Michele Panzera pointed out that the final objective, regarding a horse to be used in horse riding in general, must be to support its noble social gregarious predispositions always having as a priority its well-being at every stage of its development. Starting from the extinction of neophobic escape responses from birth, from the subsequent imprinting phases to follow, to the nextsteps of behaviouralmodelling up to three years old, to the saddle set, the construction of its foundations and its final specialisation in any sports discipline or in any other of the activities it can carry out with the man.

Mario Roggio, technical manager of F.I.S.E. and Franco Barbagallo, responding to questions from students, addressed the various issues related to animal welfare in equestrian sports.
Roggio focused on the problems of endurance, includingas a central issue doping, and show-jumping, where there is still the problem of using training techniques “prohibited on paper” but equally used. Then there are the issues relating to the regulations: the F.I.S.E. already has regulations and a code of conduct with basic rules that are a good starting point, but the “bulk of the work” must be done by the F.E.I., on which F.I.S.E.depends ( on this side, it seems that things are changing, as you can read on  CAVALLO MAGAZINE at this link dedicated toa project held by F.E.I. that finallyinvolves as a priority animal welfare in equestrian sports: https///www.cavallomagazine.it/etologia/sport-e-benessere-dite-la-vostra-alla-fei ) but the Italian and Europeanparliament must also play their parts.

Barbagallo spoke of the severe dressage problems, referring to the book by Philippe Karl, “The Drifts of modern dressage”, and that of Craig Stevens “Mediterranean Horsemanship”, and those of reining, on which he has deepened over the years in the USA and Italy. He testified how these specialities, where the absolute precision of movements and figures require great application and repetition to express them at best, can easily become extremely heavy, stressful and oppressive for the horse mentally and physically. In addition, specific rules of associations require obtaining results “too soon and too quickly”. To reach them “whatever it takes”,trainers use heavily coercive methods, even very violent in training and pre-race warm-up, when “no one sees”. It is not for nothing that the Americans left the F.E.I., which rightly wanted things to change, to do what they wanted with horses … as always. He concluded by saying that not a few “iniquities” are also seen in equestrian gatherings between Sunday riders and during the equestrian festivals in some villages, where often local riders end up mimicking the bad examples of the… supposed professionals.

Francesco Russo, a successful horse breeder that used natural methods fora long time, pointed out how important it would be, also and especially for farmers, to take advantage of appropriate training tobe informed and learnabout how to get subjects increasingly suitable for sports andtrail rides and trekking so that many of them can also leave the mephitic market of horses for meat.  To obtain horses with structure, attitudes, character, and a positive relationship established with the man from birth satisfy an expanding market that already today has wide attention (even in Sicily thanks to an increasing number of amazons) to a friendly relationship with the equines and no longer with the stupid and coercively “classic macho style” of the past.

We asked Franco Barbagallo the reasons for this experience with the University of Messina.

“I had the rare fortune,starting as a simple rider,of becoming an equestrian journalist, professionally dealing worldwidewith equestrian sports, horseback trips and all kinds of training methods and trainers. Then I even became Dabney’s student, interpreter and assistant. Then, I designed and conducted professional horseback trips of excellence in Sicily distributed by the best foreign tour operators for ten years. So I had the opportunity to “really see all the colours” in many places, sectors and situations, but where the victims were always and only horses, animals that I love to say the least. I am dedicating these last years of my career to spreading as much as possible everywhere, even in Sicily where I live, both the wickedness of the past and the present and the existence of many other ways to deal with horses so that the wheel finally turns toanother direction. Only science and knowledge can reverse trends, demonstrating with unquestionable scientific rigour what are the products of bad living conditions, stress, coercion, repetition, violence, dominance, and abuse of horses. Universities can and should play their part, as in the case of the University of Messina where the soil is very fertilethanks to the ethologist Prof. Panzera. Then it must be the “base”, formed by the spectators of the competitions and the “enlightened” practitioners, to induce “the heads of the fishes that always stinks first”, that are F.E.I. and the local and European governments, to impose even drastic and unpopular rules to stop horses being considered just objects to be bought and sold for more or less profit, treated as motorcycles, instead of thinking about them as sentient beings, sensitive, who feel strong emotions and who are basically or should be considered first of all friends. Instead, even today, too often, they suffer, in one way or another, only for our will, economical  interest and ignorance. We hope that in Sicily, we can soon hold serious courses to train new generations of horse breeders, equestrian guides, and riders that care about horses and their well-being, like me”.


Photo by Rossella Caramma.

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