Uproar over ‘appalling’ footage shown in undercover documentary – as top rider excluded from national team

  • Medal-winning rider Andreas Helgstrand has been removed from the Danish national dressage team – and reported to the police – following the broadcast of the Operation X documentary filmed undercover at Helgstrand Dressage.

    Last night (23 November) Danish television production company TV2 aired part one of the documentary Operation X: The Secrets of the Horse Billionaire. Part two is out on 29 November, but at present the documentary is only available to viewers in Denmark.

    The programme, hosted by investigative journalist Morten Spiegelhauer, is based on footage filmed on a hidden camera by a reporter who went undercover as a groom at Helgstrand Dressage in January.

    Part one – which H&H has access to and has viewed in its entirety – begins with Morten telephoning Andreas Helgstrand and offering him the opportunity to view the footage and partake in a television interview. Andreas declined this and took legal proceedings, as reported by H&H in June.

    Undercover journalist Rebekka Klubien is seen starting her role at Helgstrand Dressage in Denmark. Throughout the programme footage filmed on a hidden camera is shown including conversations between Rebekka and grooms and members of staff (who are all blurred out) about horse welfare, and whip and spur marks.

    In one discussion, a member of staff asks Rebekka if she has seen the whip marks on horses – before showing her images on a mobile phone of one horse with marks. The member of staff confirms that she has seen this happen to horses often. Video footage is then shown of a horse’s quarters on which marks can be seen.

    Later images are shown on a mobile phone of spur marks on a horse. Footage then shows a groom who states she regularly puts cream on a horse named Devolution for spur marks, which will often be bleeding – and despite this his rider continues to wear spurs. The groom claims Devolution also sometimes returns from exercise with whip marks.

    In another discussion Rebekka raises concerns about whip marks on a horse named Floss Dance. The member of staff responds that it was “not unusual” – and when asked what would happen if someone was coming to view a horse, and horses had marks on their backs, the staff member responds that these horses would have rugs on to cover them.

    Throughout the programme Morten conducts interviews with experts including equine vet Heidi Nielsen, trainer John Randskov, and former team rider Susan Kjaergard. They are shown the photos and footage, and all three state these are injuries caused by incorrect and forceful use of whips and spurs.

    The Operation X documentary also features interviews with former staff and riders from Helgstrand Dressage, including Nanna Moller, Camilla Christensen, Silke Smevik, and Sverre Smevik.

    Camilla, a former rider, states that there were “a lot of bad experiences” at Helgstrand Dressage, and that employees had to sign a contract blocking them from speaking out about what went on.

    “I lied like hell what it was like to be there, because I couldn’t say how awful it was,” she said, adding later in the interview that spur marks on horses would be covered with shoe polish.

    Silke, a former stable manager, said the concept at Helgstrand Dressage was about “selling as much as possible, as quickly as possible”, and that animal welfare was not discussed.

    Morten stated that during production he was contacted by a former rider at Helgstrand Dressage who wished to remain anonymous, owing to concerns that it would “damage her career if she spoke out negatively”. Morten said the rider sent detailed descriptions of how horses are subject to “mistreatment” – and that following one particular episode a few years ago, staff were called to a meeting and reminded of their “duty of confidentiality”.

    Another talking point in the documentary was the working conditions for the employees. Rebekka reports working a 47-hour week on an hourly rate of just under 80 Danish krone (around £9.32). There is no mandatory minimum wage in Denmark.

    Rebekka can be heard talking to a groom who is in tears about the way she was spoken to by a rider. One member of staff told Rebekka that she was working when it should have been her day off, and another said she had had only one day off in two months.

    Silke said when she worked there staff were very tired and frustrated, and “it was normal to find riders and grooms crying”. She said she approached management about improving the working conditions and increasing staff wages, and was told that grooms come and go – and that new ones could be sourced.

    Silke’s husband Sverre, who worked as a farrier at Helgstrand Dressage, said he had “never seen so many adults cry” during his time at the stud. Silke and Sverre left Helgstrand Dressage in March 2019, after a year.

    A preview for part two of the Operation X documentary, out on 29 November, shows hidden footage captured during training sessions. Clips show horses being exercised in rollkur, horses displaying explosive behaviour during training, and one horse being kicked aggressively by a rider. It also shows Rebekka raising concerns with Andreas Helgstrand – and him asking if she is filming the conversation.

    Last night Helgstrand Dressage issued a statement that said TV2’s footage had made “a big impression” on the stud.

    “It is not ok. This is bad riding and treatment of horses that we do not want to see at Helgstrand Dressage. It does not live up to our guidelines and values set, and it is not an expression of our culture. We have to fix that,” read the statement.

    “We can see that there has been a shift in our value set, and it is our responsibility as management to ensure that our training and treatment of horses takes place in the best way. We can see in the programmes that this has not happened. We can and must do better.

    “That is why we take the content of the programmes very seriously. The recordings are from January 2023, and we have – both prior to the recordings and since – thoroughly reviewed our work processes and introduced a large number of measures and improvement points for our animal welfare, business conduct and conditions for our employees.”

    The statement added that it is central to the stud’s work that “horses feel good”, and that it trains elite horses who, with their riders, “must be able to perform at the highest level”.

    “We can only succeed in this if our horses thrive and there is trust between rider and horse. Elite sport is demanding. But a sports horse, like other athletes, must feel good in order to deliver results, and therefore we must always be aware of the way we train our horses,” it read.

    “Here at Helgstrand Dressage, we train approximately 350 horses a day. Like the experts, we can also see that in some of the cases there is conflict behaviour in the programmes. This is unacceptable and we are reacting to it.”

    The statement said Helgstrand Dressage employs 60 professional riders and grooms, and it is the stud’s responsibility that guidelines are followed and that training methods are “used correctly and always have horse health and wellbeing as the most important priority”.

    “We can see that some of our training equipment has been used incorrectly during filming. It must guide and correct the horse, but they must never be used as punishment,” it read.

    “We would like to state that rollkur and overuse of whips or ‘sliding reins’ are not accepted with us. The same applies to covering track marks with coloured cream. Therefore, we have made it clear that no type of coloured cream is accepted with us.

    “We find that our horses can occasionally have sores in their mouths. This can be from picking at their mouth or tongue or grinding their teeth. Having said that, no horse should be ridden with wounds that require care and rest. We have since introduced a thorough check of our horses every 14 days, where our stable managers review the horses’ physical and psychological condition.”

    The statement concluded that Helgstrand Dressage had chosen not to participate in the Operation X documentary, as the stud is against TV2’s use of hidden recordings.

    “But there must be no doubt that we take the content very seriously,” it read.

    “Therefore, we have also listened to the criticism and have already introduced a large number of improvements in our business”. H&H reported on these improvements earlier in the week.

    Since the broadcast there has been strong reaction from across the equestrian industry.

    Not-for-profit animal welfare organisation Dyrenes Beskyttelse (Animal Protection Denmark) was one of the first to condemn Helgstrand Dressage. In a statement issued yesterday the organisation said it was “appalled” by the documentary.

    A Dyrenes Beskyttelse spokesman said the organisation had reported Helgstrand Dressage, Andreas Helgstrand, and the associated riders to the Danish police for animal cruelty. The organisation also called upon the Danish equestrian federation, Dansk Ride Forbund (DRF), to sanction Andreas and the participating riders.

    “It is simply unforgivable what has happened at Helgstrand Dressage. It would suit the DRF to be absolutely clear that this is far beyond what is acceptable and should have consequences,” said the spokesman.

    A spokesman for Denmark’s North Jutland Police told H&H that the force has received a report referring to the documentary – but that “at this early stage” they cannot give any further comment.

    In a statement issued yesterday, DRF confirmed that its board held a meeting after watching the Operation X broadcasts. Andreas’ father Ulf Helgstrand is president of DRF, but took leave from this position in September, and the acting DRF president is Jacob Ravnsbo.

    The outcome of the meeting is that Andreas, who has represented Denmark at eight championships and was part of the European bronze medal-winning team in September, is excluded from the national team and team activities.

    “The board strongly distances itself from the unacceptable methods of riding, training, and treating horses the broadcasts clearly show,” the statement read.

    “Therefore, it is now clear that Andreas Helgstrand, based on the broadcasts, can no longer represent the Danish equestrian federation as a national team rider. As a national team rider, you are, among other things, obliged to comply with our code of conduct, guidelines for ethically correct use of horses for equestrian sports, as well as act as good role models.”

    The DRF has appealed to riders at Helgstrand Dressage filmed in the Operation X documentary to come forward.

    “The riders participating in TV2’s recordings are blurred. The board therefore strongly encourages the riders in the recordings, to bring themselves before the disciplinary committee,” read the statement.

    “DRF will initiate measures with the purpose of identifying the riders and reporting them to the disciplinary committee, should this request not be met”.

    DRF has also called a stop to DRF competitions run with Helgstrand Event. The organisation has hosted Danish national championships, Nations Cup events, and showjumping competitions.

    “Helgstrand Event is a part of the Helgstrand Group. The unacceptable culture and approach to training and treatment of the horses, which the broadcasts clearly show, is not compatible with the fundamental values and principles of horse welfare,” read the DRF statement.

    “This means that the board decided to let all collaboration with Helgstrand Event end. This includes national higher level competitions as well as national and international championships for the time being.”

    This includes the Danish championships in May 2024 for seniors, under-25s and para dressage, and the Nordic Baltic Championships for dressage, showjumping and vaulting in June.

    The statement added that Helgstrand Event had an agreement with the FEI to host a European Equestrian Federation Nations Cup showjumping competition in May, and that DRF will ask the FEI to “reassess the agreement”.

    H&H has approached the FEI, and Andreas Helgstrand for comment.

    The Danish Riding Instructor Association (DRIA) raised concerns about the footage in the broadcast and said in a statement that it distances itself from “any form of violent riding” that is not only contrary to the association’s guidelines, but also lacks consideration for horse welfare.

    “The DRIA is dedicated to ensuring that the horse’s wellbeing and health are always in focus, and that riding is practised in a way that respects the animal as a partner and not as a tool,” read the statement.

    “Unfortunately, the demonstrated culture at Helgstrand Dressage seems to lack consistency with our fundamental values and ethical principles. Excessively violent riding and professionally incorrect practices are unacceptable in our association, and we distance ourselves from any form of abuse against the horse as a training method.”

    The statement added that as a “direct consequence of these serious violations”, the DRIA board has recommended that the parties involved should be excluded from the association. It added that the DRIA and the DRF cooperate on training courses for instructors, and that it recommends that Helgstrand Dressage’s status as a training provider is reviewed.

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