With so much talk of recent suspensions of high profile riders and trainers due to their horses testing positive for banned drugs, I felt I needed to put in my two cents. There is no denying that there is a major problem in the hunter ring. It is obvious. Horses cantering along, with floppy ears and glazed eyes, never shaking their head or changing pace. I mean, come on. I would personally like to see some major change in the hunter ring.
Sedatives (or “calming” drugs) have their place in the horse world. Vets use them when performing surgeries, or routine maintenance like teeth floating and joint injections. I have also used them to clip horses’ faces and ears; and for farrier work on an unruly horse. However, these drugs – however mild – have no place in the show ring. While they can make certain situations safer for the horse and handler on the ground, they make things so much more dangerous in saddle. We all understand the dangers of driving a car while intoxicated. A horse being expected to jump around a course, with a rider on it’s back, while sedated is basically the same as drunk driving!
I have not shown much the past few years because I have been dealing with a lot of behavioral and training issues with my horse, Chance. He did not have the best start as a young horse, so he needed a lot of training and un-training when I got him. That, paired with a stubborn and hot-headed personality, has made this process take years. Sure, I could’ve expedited it by getting him a little high at the horse shows to “take the edge off,” and believe me I have been tempted. Show after show of us literally making fools of ourselves, of course I was tempted! But what good would that have done? It would not have taught him, or me, anything. It would not have fixed the problems, but merely masked them and created an even more dangerous situation. It would not have made me a better rider, but a cheater.
That is what is happening at many of the highest caliber shows in the country. People are putting themselves and their horses in danger, and they are cheating.
So, how do we change this?
First off, hunter judging needs to change. Judges need to stop pinning obviously sedated horses, and report them instead. There are visible signs: floppy ears, glazed eyes, an overly tired look to them. I find it very hard to believe that a seasoned judge, who has been around horses and horse shows for years, is not able to tell.
Also, we need to keep talking about it! Social media is bringing this issue to light more so than every before. Back when I was competing on the ‘A’ circuit, I had no idea that so many people drugged their horses at shows. To be honest, I really do not know for sure that my horse back then was never drugged. I do not believe he ever was, I am about 99% sure. However, I cannot say that with 100% certainty because I never thought about it. I never asked. At big show barns, horse owners are not as involved with their horses’ care as at smaller barns. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is our responsibility as horse owners to ask questions and make it very clear what we are and are not okay with. Like I said, I fairly certain that my horse was ever drugged, but I do wish had been more involved like I am with Chance today.
It was not until I began working in the industry that I realized how commonplace drugs are on the ‘A’ circuit. Back then, people would use drugs that were not yet banned and there were constantly new ones being created. I am not currently competing on the ‘A’ show circuit so I am not up to date on all the new rules, but I believe there are now rules regarding all inject-able substances? Feel free to correct me if I am wrong! And don’t worry, I will read them all when I start showing again!
Along with awareness and improved judging, I think we need to once again make training and horsemanship a priority. It takes time to properly train a horse. Years even. There are no true shortcuts. Drugging a horse that is wild at horse shows does not teach the horse to be calm, and it does not do the rider any favors either. If we want to learn how to really ride and become great competitors, we need to have wild rides. That is how we learn to deal with different situations. Horses are animals. They have minds and emotions of their own, so riding them is not always going to be pretty and perfect. But we need the hard days to get to the good days! We can’t just skip over them. It is completely possible to have beautiful hunter rounds on a sober horse, but it takes time and training (for the horse and rider) to achieve them!
I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue! I think we need to continue talking about it. The horse show world needs to change and, whether we show or not, we can help to make that happen!