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?
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?
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.
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.