Many of these organizations, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), for example, were first formed to ensure that animals weren't beaten, starved or overworked. Some say today that the society embraces animal 'rights,' and if its new goals are attained, horse participation in recreation, sport, entertainment or work could be a thing of the past.
"We are not at all opposed to using horses for performance or recreation. In fact, we believe that regular exercise is much better for the animal than standing in stalls for days on end. Our main concern is addressing safety issues," says Marc Paulhus, HSUS director of equine protection.
"We'd like to see reform in some of the more dangerous horse sports, such as three-day eventing, steeplechasing and horse racing. We feel that these events have higher-than-tolerable breakdown rates," Paulhus adds.
Artificial enhancements, such as soring gaited horses or giving Lasix to racehorses, draw the society's ire, as do outright abuses, such as poling jumpers and cutting tails.
The society also opposes rodeo and using horses in pharmaceutical production.
There are obvious gray areas. But, hard-core animal rightists, Dr. Ward Crowe explains, insist that no species should in any way "exploit" another species. They will claim that animals have many of the same rights as humans. The extreme view is that animals have their own innate Bill of Rights and deserve much more far-reaching protection under the law. Rights activists protest rodeos, cross-county jumping courses, endurance riding, barrel racing and more. Horses shouldn't be ridden, nor even kept in stalls, they argue.
"The groups that we thought were getting stray animals off the street and cats out of the trees have openly said that they are going more conservative and more active because they can raise more funds," Dr. Nick Sojka charges, saying "HSUS has taken a radical turn.
"PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is probably the most powerful and probably has the broadest coverage. I think that there are a lot of organizations starting because they see the money. They all try to mimic PETA."
Sojka -- a veterinarian whose broad experience with animals includes stints in private practice, as a game warden, federal inspector, laboratory animal researcher at Duke University and as chairman of the Department of Comparative Medicine at the University of Virginia -- wonders whether rights activists have fully come to terms with what they are advocating.
"A clear and simple definition of animal rights is animal abolition from any contact with people," he notes. "It really shocks people when you say that means the dog who greets you at the door when you come home from work, or the parakeet that you talk to in the morning. Animal rights means that those have to go because you derive some comfort, some association, some benefit from them -- and doing that is not acceptable."
There is room for misconception, even among horsemen, about what's humane and what's not. An English rider who swears by the snaffle bit may look askance at a high-port Western spade bit. Yet in skilled hands on a well-trained animal, the spade bit can be an incredible tool.
Riding a horse in a 100-mile endurance ride is cruel if that animal has only been used for ring riding -- it's perfectly fine when the horse is fit for the task. Some horsemen may groan at the thought of bucking horses in the rodeo, but most rodeo stock gets excellent care -- and what other animal works five minutes per year? To the unknowing, crops and spurs may seem an outrage.
Veterinarians now commonly speak of animal well-being, Sojka says, a more neutral term in this otherwise contentious debate. "I find that if you say animal well-being, then you don't have to calm down the audience, and you can go from there," Sojka says with a laugh.
As opposed to animal rights, welfare or well-being is good animal husbandry, pure and simple, he explains. The high-quality feeds and forages now readily available, the huge advances in veterinary medicine, sophisticated deworming and insect control programs -- all are examples of good husbandry and indicative of the well-being our horses enjoy.
In an article that appeared in The Horse (December 1995), Crowe, a recently retired University of Kentucky veterinarian, writes that "The whole premise of animal welfare is that it is acceptable to use animals for the benefit of humans, but you are responsible for treating that animal in a humane, proper way -- to provide care, feed, water and shelter as needed for the animal's benefit.
"I have trouble understanding the concept that animals have rights as I would define them," Crowe says. "To me, with rights come responsibilities. I don't see animals being responsible for other species or responsible for their acts. We don't look upon an animal as criminal when it kills another animal for food, or to protect its property rights."
The thing to be cautious about, Sojka counsels, "and I think that it happens in the more activist discussion and ... in the general public, is we have to be very careful about anthropomorphism," the attribution of human characteristics to non-human objects.
There are organized alternatives to the animal rights groups -- the Animal Welfare Council, for example. According to President Ward Stutz (who also handles animal welfare issues for the American Quarter Horse Association), the council has a common-sense approach that offers an alternative to the more extremist organizations. For more information, call (800) 830-2387.
"We support the use of animals for entertainment, recreation and sport, but good animal husbandry must be practiced," Stutz explains. "We have a high standard for associations that want to become members, and every organization that joins must provide us with their welfare statement as well as their disciplinary procedures."
The best ways to counterbalance negative perceptions are for the industry to police itself and to educate the uninformed.
"Horse owners need to promote good animal welfare practices," agrees Terri Greer, animal welfare coordinator for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. "Your horse should always have fresh water and adequate feed. It's especially important to be vigilant about that."
She also urges any horsemen in the public eye to educate others about caring for horses.
"When visitors walks through the show barn, invite them back to see your horses, explain how you care for the animal," she suggests. "You certainly should not react defensively to what you're doing with your horse, whether it's rodeo or showing or endurance riding. It's much better to educate and explain what you're doing."
She also suggests conducting barn tours that let the public know how well cared-for the horses are and demonstrate the positive influence that horse ownership can be.
Greer strongly recommends a proactive stance. "Respond to letters in your local paper, promote what you're doing, even get involved in local government," she says.
"It's especially important today that horse owners are aware of what's going on with animal rights. Keep your ear to the ground so you can be proactive," Greer stresses.
Knowing what is going on in your community is as important as keeping up with the larger debate over animal rights. If you believe a horse is being abused or neglected, help educate the owners. Unfortunately, many people who buy horses have no idea about their care.
There are many ways to help new owners. Sign them up for The Mane Points, share your horse-care books, magazines, and videos, and take them to a local horse care clinic or symposium. Your knowledge can go a long way toward improving the lives of many horses.
Meanwhile, go out and enjoy your horse without guilt, whether your pleasure is combined training, barrel racing, or simply a ride in the woods.