Straight from the horse’s mouth: What the Roy Moore horseback footage reveals

Roy Moore leaving Alabama polling station on Dec. 12, 2017, Jim Watson AFP/Getty. Graphic designer unknown

When the video of failed senatorial candidate Roy Moore leaving the Alabama polling station on horseback popped up in my Twitter feed, I was absolutely riveted. I knew instantaneously that there were two sets of people watching the footage: those without any equestrian experience who would make what they would of the video, and riders like myself, who would understand that they were effectively watching a confession.

In comparison to women’s voices (which claim, and cry, and nag), domestic animals are the ne plus ultra in sweet complicity. Wet of nose and wide of eye, there’s no tattling or telling. Animals are honor bound to keep their owners’ secrets because they cannot speak.

Alleged sexual predator Roy Moore probably thought he had the perfect accomplice in his gaited Tennessee walking horse, Sassy — a breed developed in the southern United States for both pleasure riding and farm work, the personification of good old boy patriotism itself. A white, affluent American man taking to the polls on a horse that was used for generations on southern plantations — how virile, how on-brand. Bonus points for Sassy’s good looks and convenient muteness.

Unfortunately for Moore, however, horses’ body language is renownedly intelligible. Any horse person in the universe (and it turns out there are a ton), could read Sassy’s behavior during her public relations outing as a Morse code of distress.

When horses have their ears back, it means that they feel threatened. I don’t feel good in this situation, such ears say. I really don’t feel safe. Out of respect for a creature dignified enough to not throw her human to the ground, I’ll henceforth refer to Moore’s mare as S. rather than Sassy, because that name, and Moore’s giving of it to her, makes me feel like I’m corroborating his misogyny. (And on a sidenote, what kind of person rides a horse named Sassy to go vote for himself?) In the video from the polling station, S. has her ears pinned back the entire time. On social media, some people have pointed out that the horse is probably frightened by the cameras and the crowds, and that is why S. has her ears pinned. Absolutely valid. But here’s the thing: there is a kind of horse that can be ridden safely into a maddening crowd. It’s called a stick horse. They’re roughly 29 inches long, and they’re usually made out of wood. Using any other kind of horse in a volatile situation necessitates a willing steed, an accomplished rider, or — ideally — both.

If your horse doesn’t do well in unpredictable situations, you do not force your horse into such a situation. If you are the kind of person who cares about your fellow man, as Moore claims to, you don’t ride a nervous, shying 1,400-pound beast into a vulnerable crowd.

If you speak horse, or care enough to look into how equines communicate, the Moore horseback footage is proof — or at the very least, a strong suggestion — that Roy Stewart Moore doesn’t care a whit about consent. S. is giving Moore every cue in her power to let him know that she is frightened and uncomfortable, and instead of removing her from a distressing situation (or not forcing her into it in the first place), he starts hauling on her mouth, punishing her repeatedly for her public ‘no’s.

In addition to the riders’ natural “aids” (the way in which a rider uses their leg, seat, hands and voice to communicate intention), bridled horses have a metal bar in their mouths called a “bit” that allows the rider (with the assistance of the attached reins) to positively reinforce good behavior, or to correct unwanted acts. Horses move away from pressure. If you apply pressure to the horse with your right leg, for example, he will move away from it, to the left. If you pull on your reins, this moves the position of the bit inside of the horse’s mouth to a place that is uncomfortable for them. Good riders use their reins sparingly — whether they want their mount to slow down, turn, or halt, they will use their legs and seat to achieve this result first. For respectable equestrians, pulling on the reins is a shameful, last resort.

Watch the video of mounted Moore again. If you’ve grasped the way a bit works, you’ll understand that Moore has chosen to respond to his horse’s distress signals by making her feel worse. He is quite literally yanking on the reins with his arms way up in the air, a nonsensical hand position which would only compound the pain of a jerked bit. Add to this the fact that Moore has tacked her with what looks like a Tom Thumb bit — a notoriously harsh bit designed for increased leverage action, which will amplify, tenfold, any pressure exerted on it by a rider. When the reins are yanked with a Tom Thumb bit attached, the mouthpiece can bend in its jointed middle and slam into the roof of the horse’s mouth, which is as excruciating as it sounds.

Countless articles have made fun of Roy Moore’s lack of skills as a rider: he’s using two hands on his reins when he should be using one, his body has no give whatsoever, his seat is a disaster, his leg position is all wrong. As a beginner horsewoman myself, I’m of the opinion that there is room for in riding for bad riders. It can take years to achieve the perfect balance that is known as an “independent seat”, years, also, to develop what riders call “soft hands”. Every equestrian discipline needs beginners to keep the sport of horseback riding accessible — and thrilling — for those who want to learn. The beauty of horseback riding is that it is the only sport in which a human and an animal must come together as one in order to be successful at the endeavor they’re collectively pursuing. Whether it’s chasing a polo ball across a grass field in a herd of other horses, successfully clearing a pair of 1.80m oxers in a jumping competition, or simply taking your horse out for the pleasure-centric, casual ride known as a “hack”, good horse people strive to be in sync with the animals who are letting them climb up on their back, because a “heard” horse is one who is going to listen back.

There is a massive difference between a bad rider and a cruel one. Roy Moore is the latter. Intentionally deaf to his horse’s comfort, gleefully indifferent to her needs, in addition to his allegations of sexual misconduct, we might add animal abuse, too. #FreeSassy, indeed.