The Invisible Abuse

Not all abuse is readily visible. Seeing blood at the corner of a horse’s mouth and crying foul is an easy call in my mind. But what about the stuff you don’t and can’t see? The stuff that goes on back at the tack stalls during competition? Practices that many people don’t even question, or worse, choose not to see? The administration of substances that affect the health and well-being of our horses directly … what about that?

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Not all medications are banned for all at horse shows in the United States. The USEF drug rules account for the use of certain medications, typically under time constraints or the supervision of a veterinarian, for therapeutic purposes, and require documentation. Within the rules and also in the best interest of the horse, administration of substances under these kind of circumstances withstand scrutiny.

Administering substances that affect the performance of a horse solely to affect the performance of the horse in rated competition is abuse. To characterize it as anything less is to condone it, when it should be condemned.

Secrets lurk in the darker corners of hunter/jumper shows. Secrets that go by the names of GABA, oxytocin, progesterone, magnesium, and many, many others. Some of these secrets occur naturally in the blood of mammals when but given in certain formulations or doses work to calm, sedate, or exhaust a horse: take “the edge” off. Is that impeccably-groomed six-figure hunter that looks so effortlessly relaxed in the ring suffering, or not? It really doesn’t seem to be, right? How do you know?

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A few high profile violations and recent rule changes have kept substance abuse, especially in the hunter ring, in the spotlight. Betsee Parker’s Inclusive, then piloted by Tory Colvin, tested positive for GABA in excess of normal levels at the 2014 USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships. This month Kelley Farmer and Larry Glefke were suspended and fined, again for GABA, reportedly the first decision issued under the newer rule changes and guidelines.

We cannot ask the horses if they’re cool jumping around with a little extra GABA in their systems (or whatever else). We all have opinions on floppy-eared, overweight warmbloods cantering around a derby course, lifting knees to eyeballs and heaving their bodies over walls and coops and brush, looking cartoony but weirdly adorable much of the time. Regardless of what’s really going on, what we think is going on, and how the horses feel, we have total control of and therefore total responsibility to the well-being of our horses. Administering substances not for therapeutic purposes, but singly for the purpose of enhancing the overly stylized performance prized lately by hunter judges is crude, immoral, and I think it’s unequivocally abusive. How can it possibly be in the best interest of the horse to alter, artificially, the amount of a particular neurotransmitter in its system to gain a competitive edge? No one truly is giving these substances to help the horse. People do it for the ribbons, points, and prize money.

There is the case people make–well, it was in the supplement my horse was given and I didn’t know. Certainly true in at least one case of a horse testing positive for GABA. But also avoidable–read the labels, read the ingredients, know what you are putting in your horse’s body. If a supplement doesn’t have a label, if a mixture doesn’t have an ingredients list, LOOK for it. Ask the manufacturer. If you can’t get answers, do you really want to give your horse something when you don’t know what’s in it?

Catch riders also have a responsibility, too. Don’t just ride whatever. Learn about your rides. Work with trainers and owners you know and trust, programs you know and trust. Ignorance can’t be an excuse. Not all opportunities will benefit you.

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What needs to change? The rules have, and new penalty guidelines have been issued, perhaps in hopes of reducing the somewhat random nature of the penalties in the past, and reducing favoritism. Now it’s on the owners, trainers, and riders to KNOW how the horse is prepared for competition. Now it’s also on the judges to quit rewarding zombies and start pinning horses with fervor, zest, and personality — with brilliance — in their performances.

35 thoughts on “The Invisible Abuse

  1. Claiming ignorance is dangerous and not in your horses best interests at all. Granted, I’m sure there are cases of genuine ignorance, but in today’s information age, it’s less likely. I just started following your blog and I love it. I look forward to each post.

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  2. “No one truly is giving these substances to help the horse. People do it for the ribbons, points, and prize money.”
    You hit the nail on the head with that statement! Thanks for speaking out about this. We all need to become more vocal instead of just shaking our heads among ourselves.

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  3. I can’t even fathom doping a horse. I mean, I stress about giving a gram of bute 12 hours before (which is legal), because my horses get stiff when stall kept. Riding a doped horse over 3’+ fences seems like a super bad idea for all sorts of reasons.

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  4. The other BIG part of this problem is the judges rewarding the behavior of horses that isn’t all that natural. If show hunters really are based on fox hunting, the horse exhibiting behavior that indicates it LIKES what it is doing should be rewarded, not penalized. I show hunters and I fox hunt. A horse in the hunt field MUST like it’s job or it will not perform and that can be dangerous for hounds, other horses and riders. It is a good day out if my horse kicks up his heels a bit before or after a jump because that means he is happy and sound of body and mind. I sincerely hope the rule changes as they apply to drugs are also manifested in a change in judging.
    Your post is well written and hits the nail on the head!

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  5. I agree! I look forward to a time when I can take my foxhunting horse in the hunter ring and not have judges, other rides, and spectators clutch their pearls because she’s enthusiastic about her job!

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  6. I totally agree- and your last sentence is something I wholeheartedly said “yes!” to when I read it. Horses should be rewarded for enjoying their job, and showing a little bit of personality is not something that should be punished. Really well written post and good to hear more about this topic.

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  7. Amen!! Personally, I would like to see heavier consequences and a change in hunter judging. You know they can tell. That being said, it is completely possible to have a beautiful hunter round without sedatives for a properly trained horse, with an accurate and capable rider. If you need to cheat, you and your horse are not ready. I love that social media is bringing this issue to light. We need to keep talking about it!

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  8. I completely agree with everything said here! I’m curious though. You mentioned progesterone in your list, but my understanding is that that’s mostly used to help regulate/balance hormones in mares and more “studdish” geldings, and it’s not given with all that much frequency. It’s possible I’m thinking of another hormone entirely. But is that something used in higher doses for doping purposes as it were at shows too? I’m not super familiar with all of the different things used other than the most common items on the banned list and stuff often found in supplements and things that cause problems. I also didn’t see any hormones or progesterone listed specifically when I glanced through that, but now I’m super curious.

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    • I have zero issue with the use of progesterone to regulate mares’ hormones. But I think some people do give it in, uh, unusually high does to geldings to “calm” them and that strikes me as a bit bonkers. Magnesium is widely used, too, by many as an oral supplement in nutritionally appropriate amounts, and that obviously is not what I’m talking about. The mag injections terrify me, however.

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      • I see, that makes sense! I’ve definitely seen small doses of mare hormones given to geldings like monthly-quarterly ish but not so much for calming as to help with behavioral tendencies so they’re just safer and easier to handle/work with. I guess a really large dose could also make them quieter too. I didn’t even realize shots of magnesium were a thing but yikes! Shows how often I drug my horse. Ha.

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  9. This times 100! There needs to first and foremost be a change in the judging, and not just by the rules, but by what judges are actually awarding horses.

    The whole drugging phenom is crazy, especially when it comes to the Perfect Products, or all the other calming medications on the market. I found it disgusting, and slightly humorous that Perfect Products sponsored the new USHJA 2’3” division at WEF.

    Have I ever given Libby a similar product? I’d be lying if I said I haven’t. I did give her a quarter of a dose of Easy Does It, for her first show in years. I justified it at the time because I believed in my trainer, but of course looking back it did nothing but make me feel better. I don’t want Libby to not be aware of her surroundings, to not have all her faculties about her, thats so dangerous.

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    • I don’t think the Perfect line of products are even as bad as some of the other stuff. That being said, for competition, any calming substance that alters the horse’s performance could be illegal, so it’s better to skip the shortcuts and spend more time training. I rode with trainer who insisted on young horses going to shows not to show but just to get them in the environment. It was an extravagance for most people, but the results were excellent in my experience. It made for confident animals on busy showgrounds and no drug can replace that kind of time and training.

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      • They’re not bad but they make the line fuzzy between what is and isn’t acceptable.

        I did it on our schooling day to see if it would help her to relax in the ring by herself, which it didn’t. She just needed a more confident ride that I couldn’t give her then. Oh well it’s a lesson I learned, and I know I’m not really on the spectrum of drugging my horse to get them around and pinning. But I think it still counts 😦

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        • I think we’ve all been there! It can be hard to know where to draw the line when it’s a paste or supplement that also has B vitamins and stuff like that. Personally, I’d be a bit lost if I didn’t have my magnesium supplemented, too. But relying on a tube of paste or an IV shot of something instead of trying to learn to really ride through a little apprehension — I agree with you, it’s not really ok.

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  10. I don’t know why I’d never thought of this before, but horses who are routinely medicated, go through detox when it stops. DETOX. The thought of these animals enduring such pain when they have absolutely no idea why or any control over it makes me supremely sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears. For me, that mental image is so powerful.

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