Everything You Need to Know About the Ashley Holzer Dressage Controversy

There's a lot to unpack here.

Lauren Wellbank - Author

Apr. 30 2024, Published 3:13 p.m. ET

Ashley Holzer rides dressage at the 2012 Olympics
Source: Getty Images

Ashley Holzer has a long list of accolades thanks to her work as an equestrian, including four Olympic runs over her nearly 40-year career. And while she has a lot to celebrate as a rider — she's been able to travel the world over the past four decades, heading to the Grand Prix at Palm Beach, the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Germany, and the FEI Dressage Nations Cup in the Netherlands — she hasn't been able to outrun allegations of animal abuse.

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TikTokers have been breaking down the complaints against Holzer, which include trigger stacking and injuring her horse during an event, to express their concern for the horses that she rides and disgust over how officials can turn a blind eye to what they say is obvious abuse.

Here's everything we know about Holzer's controversy, including what the experts say about the ethics of riding horses.

Ashley Holzer horse controversy
Source: dressagehub_official/TikTok, Getty Images
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Who is equestrian Ashley Holzer?

Holzer is a former member of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian team. The Canadian-born rider is married to fellow equestrian Charles "Rusty" Holzer, and the pair share two children. Over her long and storied career, Holzer has ridden several notable horses, including Reipo (whom she took to the Olympics) and Pop Art (who helped her place fifth place in the 2009 World Cup).

But none of those horses are as recognizable as her latest steeds, who have many people in TikTok worried since eagle-eyed fans of the sport think they've noticed something wrong with the way Holzer treats them.

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Here's everything we know about Holzer's dressage controversy.

According to the United States Dressage Federation, dressage is a type of horseback riding named for the French word for "training" where the horses move through the competition ring while doing a specific type of canter, which is supposed to show off their obedience and flexibility.

But, according to horse enthusiasts like TikTok's dressagehub_official, Holzer has achieved that obedience using cruel techniques. The TikTok user alleges that Holzer's methods are one of the worst-kept secrets in riding, telling followers that everyone has been talking about it since 2021.

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The TikToker highlights some of what she's talking about in a video of Holzer's horse, who appears to struggle to maintain the canter that Holzer expects of him. I'm no horse expert myself, but even I think that the poor pony looks destressed in this video.

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In addition to improper training techniques, Holzer is also accused of trigger stacking, which the OP explains is the result of combining several different stressors on top of one another — they include discomfort, a bad warmup, or overuse of restraints and pressure, amongst others — and can present as anxiety or fear. That's something that many horse fans are calling out in videos of Holzer with her horse, Valentino.

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In another video shared by the same account, Holzer is accused of being eliminated from a competition because there was blood on her horse, which the OP says happened when Holzer pulled on the reins too hard, causing the bit in the horse's mouth to tear into his flesh and rip into his lips and skin. Ouch!

Is dressage bad for horses? Does horseback riding hurt the horse?

As you can imagine after reading this, there are definitely instances where horses get injured during a ride. But does that mean that all riding is painful or bad for horses? For that answer, we turn to experts like the advocates at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who mostly agree that horseback riding is unethical.

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It's hard to argue with those views when you learn about some of the dark history of the sport, like what has gone on at racing stables in the past. Some riders and caretakers stand accused of everything from overworking prized ponies to drugging their horses so that they could continue to compete over the years.

So, what is the opinion of the horses who are actually being ridden? Do they like the sport? According to the Horse Rookie blog, it all depends on the horse! Some horses seem to express enjoyment when they are given the option to ride with their humans, while others prefer to be left alone.

Regarding such mixed reviews, I think I'll err on the side of caution and take my lead from the horses who'd rather be left alone and leave the running around to the horses themselves... and maybe you should, too.

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