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Emma Kurrels

The British undercover equestrian investigator and social reformer whose work is regularly published on the Voices for Horses news website.



1 - What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the equestrian world during your life time?

The advent of horse whisperers with their inherently flawed philosophies and profoundly damaging methods.


2 - Do you ride?

Yes as often as I can. It all began when I was put on an old Spanish cart horse when I was 3 years old.


3 - Do you own a horse?

Yes – I have two horses and two ponies. All 4 are rescues from dire circumstances. The last one I took in was a foal who had been dumped on the edge of a town and was running around terrified in the traffic.


4 - Who is your favourite horse in history?

Sefton joined the British Army in 1967. By 1975 he had joined the Household Cavalry. On 20 July 1982 Sefton was en route with 15 other horses from his regiment to the Changing of the Guard, when a nail bomb planted by the IRA detonated nearby, killing 11 people and 7 horses, and injuring Sefton and 8 of his stable mates. Sefton sustained serious injuries including a severed jugular vein, wounded left eye, and 34 wounds over his body including shrapnel lodged in his bone. Vets caring for him gave him a 50/50 chance of surviving the shock and extreme blood loss. Sefton not only recovered, but he returned to his full duties. At the age of 30, Sefton died, a national hero.

I chose Sefton because he is the symbol of equines throughout history who have endured, and continue to endure, for us. They have served and continue to serve and give their lives for us and yet we continue to fail them.


5 - Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?

I think this person is one of the most influential.

From humble beginnings as a hospital for warhorses in a dusty Cairo street founded in 1934, the Brooke has become the UK’s leading equine welfare charity for working equines in the world's poorest communities. The 700,000 horses, donkeys and mules the Brooke now reaches each year are a living testament to the dedication of the founder, Mrs. Dorothy Brooke. On arrival in Egypt in 1930, Dorothy Brooke was horrified to find hundreds of emaciated horses being used as beasts of burden on its streets. The wife of a British army major general, Dorothy Brooke was appalled to learn that these walking skeletons were ex-war horses of the British, Australian and American forces. All of them had seen service in the First World War and when the conflict ended in 1918, they were abandoned and sold into a life of hard labour in Cairo. Poorly cared for, they were old and many were in terrible pain. Dorothy wrote a letter to the Morning Post – which later became the Daily Telegraph – exposing their plight.  The public were so moved they sent her the equivalent today of £20,000 to help end the suffering of these once proud horses. Within three years, Dorothy had set up a committee and bought 5,000 of these ex-war horses. Most were old and in the final stages of collapse, and had to be humanely put down. But, thanks to her compassion and tenacity, all of them ended their lives peacefully. Dorothy knew that her work could not end there, thousands of horses, donkeys and mules toiled and suffered in Cairo.  In 1934, Dorothy Brooke founded the ‘Old War Horse Memorial Hospital’ in Cairo, with the promise of free veterinary care for all the city’s working horses and donkeys…the Brooke was born. From such simple beginnings, the Brooke has grown into the international equine lifesaver it is today. They now work in ten countries across the world - Egypt, India, Pakistan, Jordan, Israel (Palestinian villages in Israel and the West Bank), Afghanistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Nepal.


6 - What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?

When I was 13 I was given a book called Stallion of a Dream by Robert Vavra. For the first time here was something that helped me identify with what horses meant to me. It is a mixture of photography and poetry about a boy who connects on such a profound level with a horse that he becomes one.


7 - What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?

I wouldn’t recommend an equestrian book - however I would recommend this book to equestrians - Don’t Shoot The Dog by Karen Pryor.


8 - How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian specialty?

I had always been involved with equines in the UK. I had been taught by very conventional teachers and worked on typical UK yards where horses were either kept in boxes or stalls, ridden for an hour or turned out for a while in relatively small over-crowded paddocks. I was never comfortable with what I saw nor what I was being taught, but I knew no better.

I then got a job in America as a trail guide and all of a sudden my world was flooded with light and air. I was working with 90 horses that were not kept in boxes or stalls or postage stamp size paddocks. They lived out on 5000 acres and I started to truly ‘see’ the animal that I loved. Every spare moment I spent observing their behavior, their relationships, eating and leadership patterns. When the horses were chosen for guests it was to suit the riders' weight and ability which put horses in groups that they would not choose to be in when turned out. I began to notice the mostly subtle changes in their behavior as they would generally tolerate, adapt, but occasionally protest. I realized these horses had greater freedom but essentially suffered from the same human insensitivity and ignorance as the horses in the UK. In my experience - in general - equines are expected to do our bidding without any recognition for their innate needs. We literally ride rough shod over their physical, emotional, social and spiritual well being. From this point I started to study equine behavior, learning theory and psychology. 


9 - What prompted you to enter that field?

A realization that the equestrian education system (world wide) was and still is profoundly and inexcusably flawed. Abuse comes in many forms - ignorance is an aggressive cancer rooted deep in equine welfare.


10 - Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?

Yes and no. At first I was groping around in the dark. I was accumulating theories but had no one I respected or trusted enough to ask about them. I discovered that many academics could not actually translate learning theory into practical application and grass root trainers said the science of behavior was an incomprehensible waste of time which ignored  the “art” of horsemanship. By now I had also started working for a ‘horse whisperer’ and was studying ‘natural horsemanship methods’ This man was a life-changing inspiration! He inspired me never to rest until I could prove and put right the damage he and his kind have caused to equines world wide.


11 - When did you begin your research, investigation, work?
1995 - I was 28


12 - What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?

Bearing in mind I am not an academic and left school at 15 branded a drop-out, my most important discovery is also the most beautiful irony because it is learning theory. My most important insight was realizing if humans could train a dolphin to do tricks without touching them or physically punishing them, why not apply the same theory to equines? My most important achievement is proving it is possible to shape equine behavior and equine decision making without coercion. The knowledge that this is possible is helping me change entrenched perceptions and misunderstandings and build a case to prove current education standards in equine behavior and training are woefully inadequate, outdated and damaging.


13 - What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?

Without a doubt the internet. Not only as an amazing research tool but also networking facility. Forums are also an invaluable window into the equestrian community psyche. It helps me to understand fads and shifts in thinking and expectations. It has helped me see how certain organizations obtain, control and shape the behavior of their supporters and the impact this has on levels of ignorance, arrogance, aggression, oppression, suppression and bullying in our industry.

Given the opportunity I would also like to take full advantage of technology that can help us read brain activity in equines in direct relation to handling and training techniques.


14 - What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?

When I have helped someone find the courage to challenge accepted wisdom. To watch them look at what is familiar from new and different perspectives. To empower, motivate and support those willing to step outside their comfort zone and forge their own path. To have a positive impact on the lives of humans and equines. To effect change where change is needed.


15 - What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?

Discovering that many academics who could endorse new thinking are incapable of it themselves. That governing bodies pay lip service to equine welfare and education bodies have standards so inadequate that ignorance is peddled and praised rather than recognized.


16 - How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?

In my experience the academic fraternity have never had the average horse-owner as a target for their information. Rather their ambition seems to be aimed towards being respected and revered amongst their peers only. There is little effort to make information easily accessible and understandable at a grass roots level.


17 - What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?

This is too big a question for me to answer in this format because as dramatic as it sounds I would say all of them. Whether it is live export – welfare in markets, sales rings, abattoirs and riding schools. Rules in racing – drugs in competition, ignorance in education or inertia in policy making - much, much more has to be done to improve standards across the board. Working in equine welfare I am acutely aware how every single subject has more often that not a negative impact on equines. Looking at the equestrian industry as a whole and the animal that makes our industry possible we have a long way to go before we can feel proud.


18 - Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?

We use equines in every conceivable way to satisfy our needs, desires, wants and in some countries hunger. Because of this we have a duty of care - moral obligation and responsibility to do our best for them – to constantly strive to identify areas of weakness and improve them. The governing bodies within our industry have propagated a culture of arrogance, greed, compliance and self indulgence that is not only intolerable but insulting. To be governed by irrational, unintelligent, unimaginative unproductive and on many levels corrupt and deceitful rule makers is the pitiful shame of our industry.


19 - How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?

By social networking - speaking to people, doing lecture demonstrations - writing for magazines and getting fertile thinkers together. Ideally I would love to develop a centre of excellence that offers education worthy of being delivered  in the 21st century.


20 - What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?

Intellectual - education reform and cross fertilization between academics and grass roots owners and professionals.

Technical – better ways of collecting real time brainwave activity and adrenalin levels during handling and to monitor the effects of environments and demands such as markets, travel and competition.

Ethical - Awareness and understanding of how everything we do in our industry has an impact on welfare. Profound changes at policy and education levels.


21 - Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?

The difficulties are here and now - without reform, without vision, without aggressive and progressive intervention they just become worse, more varied and widespread.


22 - What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?

Filling the void of inspirational, intelligent and proactive leaders willing to work at the coal face. Our industry's culture of fire fighting and crises management as opposed to promoting prevention. Ultimately - the lack of moral and ethical standards.


23 - What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?   


24 - Any final thoughts?

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them” Einstein

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