"In horse racing, industry leaders have taken significant steps against the
overmedicating of horses. But in the cloistered equestrian world,
the issue has attracted less notice..."
Take a deep breath before you open the newspaper or fire up your social media network this morning. The New York Times is casting doubt on the ability of the US Equestrian Federation to run a safe and honest sport for young riders. Today's expose article contends that trainers are injecting show hunters with multiple calming and therapeutic medications, sometimes as little as one hour before the horse is scheduled to enter the ring.
This blog post is in response to
Sudden Death of Show Pony Clouds Image of Elite Pursuit
by Walt Bogdanich, published in the New York Times on December 28, 2012
The issue came to the attention of the Times after a show pony suddenly died at Pennsylvania's Devon Horse Show this year after being injected.
Is medication a substitute for good training skills, as the article implies? It's hard to believe that the trainer in this article could have taken her clients and their ponies to the level of the Devon Horse Show on medication alone.
And, as the article also charges, is hunter judging skewed to favor the horse that appears to resemble a robot circling the arena in slow motion? That part might be somewhat true but the reason for the huge numbers of young riders showing in the hunter division is because they can ride these robotic horses and ponies.
From the article: "In the three days before Humble died, he had been scheduled
to receive 15 separate drug treatments, including anti-inflammatories,
corticosteroids and muscle relaxants, according to his medication chart."
Gone are the days when kids rode every day and were naturals on horseback. Most young riders on the show circuit today compete in multiple sports and activities; many aren't able to dedicate the time needed to learn to truly master their riding skills on a fresh horse, particularly if it is agitated by crowds, other horses and loud noises.
A broke-to-death pony is the answer, of course, but the competitive nature of the sport means that the broke-to-death pony needs to look stunning and be sound. Those three qualities are often mutually exclusive, and the truly safe ponies who look the part of the winner as they gently circle in a perfect four-beat canter are very hard to find.
Yes, we admit it: we have tolerated the watered-down, over-subscribed hunter division because it brings young people into the sport. They are the next generation of horse owners, and motivation is often linked to the rewards of not only showing, but winning. It becomes part of the trainer's job to keep riders in the ring, collecting ribbons and points. The ones who are motivated will eventually rise to hunter levels that require more skill; some will go on to ride in jumper classes, join the hunt or turn to the cross-country galloping thrills of eventing or the precise skills of equitation or dressage to fuel their childhood passion long into adulthood.
From the article: "At racetracks, only veterinarians are allowed
to administer intravenous drugs, but on show grounds anyone
can stick a needle into a horse before it performs."
To participate, today's over-busy child rider needs to rely on a professional trainer to manage the horse. Part of managing the horse is making sure it is healthy on show day, even after hauling hundreds of miles and being ridden over fences by an inexperienced rider. Sore backs, wonky hocks, troublesome stifles, fickle fetlocks, countless allergies, gastric ulcers, and sensitivity to colic mean that these horses and ponies need a lot of attention, not to mention magnetic blankets, chiropractors, ice boots, massages, feed supplements and, yes, medication.
For the trainer in a hurry, or the trainer under the pressure to get a horse or pony to the warmup ring to keep parents writing checks, or the trainer who can't (or won't) read a horse, or the trainer who'd rather ask a friend for advice instead of paying for a veterinary appointment, the short cuts can lead to just one place: a medicine trunk.
Many young riders, however, are lucky enough to train with an experienced, successful trainer who came up through the ranks and knows how to manage both horses and riders, how to match them to each other, how to coach both of them to get the most from the experience and, hopefully, win while they are at it.
Anything short of that is cheating on the highest level. It's cheating the rider, it's cheating the horse and it's cheating all of us who work hard to keep shining a favorable light on equestrian sport and all who are in it for the love of the game and the horse, as well as for a living.
And that is most of us.
Note: Read the article in the New York Times, but also look for a response from the US Equestrian Federation and other show-related organizations or veterinary groups and from individual trainers, rider and judges. And if you don't see responses, it's not a good sign. This article should launch a dialog that both English and western showing need to have with both rulemakers and stakeholders like parents, owners, and riders.