This trainer believes people will always be trying to outsmart the system—so maybe the system needs to change.
Having returned to training in 2009 after a 15-year absence, I find everything has changed, and everything has stayed the same. When I “retired,” hunters still were primarily Thoroughbreds, and the conversations I had with other professionals were often about how to get them to be quiet enough in the show ring.
Longeing seemed to be even more common than it is now, and horses were often out longeing for 40 to 60 minutes in the morning. In my memory, horses that showed a little animation without bucking or otherwise being exuberant in the ring were not penalized as much as they are now. Just as now, a good hunter was supposed to be slow off the ground and not go through the distance, but the overall look was not as lethargic as it seems to be today.
As a junior rider in the 1970s, I had a Thoroughbred that very easily came unhinged. He showed on 1⁄4 cc of acepromazine, and he was entirely rideable. As a junior in a large show barn, I knew this about my horse. The drug rule went into effect in the mid 1970s, and testing was extensive. Everyone was scrambling to find a way to make the horses quiet enough for that beautiful hunter round. We rarely showed without a tester being on the grounds. There were far fewer horses and horse shows than we have now, and the Florida circuit was just becoming a reality. Palm Beach Polo was a few years away from starting up.
The first drug that I remember being bandied about as a viable way to keep the horses quiet was reserpine, and my understanding was that it was very commonly in use. A test was developed, and a lot of important trainers and others were caught and suspended. How many times has this scenario repeated itself since then?
Working Around The Rules
First and foremost, as long as hunters are expected to go around in a quiet and relaxed manner, people will be finding ways around the rules to make that happen. This ideal is not going to change, nor do I think it should, as that is what we all love about show hunters. The problem will not be solved by writing stronger rules, as there will always be people ahead of the curve.
The hunter industry is a billion-dollar industry that is obviously fueled by the desire for success at the highest levels. Many of the same people who write the rules are judges and trainers as well. Perhaps it’s time for honest conversation about where this is taking us.
The U.S. Equestrian Federation demands that horses be given no substance that will affect their performances. Many people still believe that things are legal if they aren’t on the USEF banned substance list, and that is not true. Any substance given with the intent to change a horse’s performance is illegal. Blood samples are saved and will be re-tested as the testing gets more sophisticated, so all of us need beware what we give our animals.
Now the tricky part. We’ve become used to seeing hunters cantering around in a lethargic state, and that’s become the benchmark for success in the division. I can honestly say that in the 15 years I’ve been away, I see a marked difference in the degree to which the horses have become “quiet.” Some of this may be due to the fact that a quiet warmblood has an even slower way of going than a quiet Thoroughbred, but that’s a discussion for another day. As a trainer of a very limited number of ponies, it’s not reasonable to think that I can get them all to that level of relaxation on a single day, no matter what the weather conditions. How does it happen in a barn that shows a large number of horses?
The judges in our industry often are riders, trainers and members of the committees that write the rules. Anyone on the Equine Drugs And Medications Committee is bound by the Federation to write rules that close the loopholes for any drug use that changes the horse’s performance, but that same person may be trying to get a very talented and nervous horse to perform well for its very timid and nervous rider at the shows. When this same busy horseman heads out to judge, he’ll be looking for that elusive hunter round that is quiet and soft and seemingly effortless.
All of us “hunter people” know that special round that takes your breath away. I can remember a few rounds I had in the ’70s that just make you want to go back and try and make the magic happen again.
As a trainer, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those moments at some very nice horse shows, and it gives you the kind of high that we all strive for when we compete. Still, few horses will ever achieve a performance like that without some kind of help: either extra work or a supplement or medication of some sort.
So, do we give up that elusive moment? Do we stay on the course we are following, or do we rethink where it’s all going?
It’s my understanding that the drug rules were not written in the beginning to level the playing field but because showing tranquilized horses constituted a danger to both the horse and to the rider. Forty years later, intravenous magnesium is being administered to horses before they show because it slows their heart and therefore makes them lethargic. It also kills them sometimes (see “Intravenous Injection Of Magnesium Sulfate Isn’t Just Illegal—It’s Dangerous”). It’s a perfect drug because it metabolizes so quickly that it cannot be found in a drug test. I would prefer to ride a horse that’s had 1⁄4 cc of acepromazine!