“Doping in performance horses is defined as the “illegal application of any substance, except normal diet, that might modify the natural and present capacities of the horse at the time of the race.” The prohibition of doping is mainly based on the protection of animals.” Read the The National Center for Biotechnology Information definition of doping horses.

Ernie Oare wants a controlled amount of quieting substance(s) to be written into the rules for the hunter division. In my opinion this is related to legalizing doping.

Oare lays out his plan on pages 88 and 89 of The Horseman’s Forum, The Chronicle of the Horse (March 21-28, 2016).

He believes that by allowing a controlled amount of quieting substances to be used “. . . the “nicest “ horse that is ridden well will win.” He believes that using drugs to make horses quieter in the show ring is beneficial to the horse and in the end “The horse would be the real winner.” He believes that by making drugs legal in the hunter ring, the use of illegal substances (doping) will disappear, innocent professionals would not be damaged by suspensions and law suits, the over use of the longe line at shows would end, and exhibitors and trainers could ride a nice horse.

Who is Ernie Oare?
Oare has been a member of the Virginia Racing Commission, past President of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, a director of the National Steeplechase Association, and President of the Virginia Horse Shows Association. He’s been a race horse owner and trainer.  Betty Oare, Ernie’s wife, is a Hall of Fame hunter rider. And Ernie’s a USEF Judge for hunters and equitation.

For a man with such vast horse experience, I believe he has a myopic view of  drugs for horses.

Only the hunters
Oare begins his premise by telling us that he doesn’t know how this will apply to other breeds and disciplines. He’s only concerned with hunters.

Oare isn’t concerned that a decision to legalize drugging of horses in one division would have widespread consequences to all breeds and disciplines. In order to have a healthy horse industry we need to think beyond our own little set of desires.

Doping has side effects
Oare says, “Illegal medications can not only mess up the playing field, but they can have terrible side effects. . . “

Let’s be clear. Making a drug legal does not change its side effects. All drugs have a negative effect on the body they are administered too. The organ most effected is the liver which has to filter the toxins out of the blood. Drugs have potential side effects.

Oare clams that drugs are bad when they are used for purposes for which they weren’t intended. While there have been a few natural products formulated to make a horse calmer for riding, none of the tranquilizers were developed with a goal of making a horse quieter to ride.  So any use of them for showing is using them for which they were not intended.

The hazards for the horse are not eliminated if doping is made legal. The only hazard that is eliminated is the legal one for the human being.

Is doping on the increase?
Oare believes that the reason we see more use of drugs is that the testing has gotten better.  I believe this is another naive opinion. More people are involved in showing, there are more competitions, higher stakes, and more combinations of things fed or injected in to horses. Thirty years ago you didn’t see receptacles for needles on show grounds.

Oare claims there will always be cheaters who look for new drugs. I agree. I say legalizing tranquilizers gives cheaters the opportunity to pile junk on top of the already medicated horse which opens the door for more combinations and increases the hazards for the horse.

Oare indicates that by allowing a legal amount of tranquilizers(or safe drugs as he calls them), people would have no reason to cheat because they would all be on a level playing field.  But I say if a ‘legal’ amount doesn’t produce the desired effect, the people who want a more obedient horse will increase the dosage and they will add other substances to the mix.

When the horse becomes dangerous
Oare states “A safety concern was also expressed, but the correct dosage of the correct drug has never made a horse any more dangerous than they already are.” This is a generalized statement that has no basis in fact. Don’t believe it. It’s not true.

What happens when a horse over reacts to the legal amount or more than the legal amount is used? Oare says, “If a horse is over-medicated to the dangerous level, the trace test will be the prosecution.”

This means the horse would be tested after the fact, implying the concern is only with the rule breakers, not with the horses or riders themselves.  So, Ernie would have someone check the horse out after it has become dangerous? Or does this mean a random person will walk around competition sites looking for potentially overdosed horses?

Lower Testing costs
Oare claims that testing costs would be lowered because the sport would only have to do tests for the amount of “prescribed” medications used on a horse.

Whoa! That’s like giving people the freedom to use everything else at whim because they won’t be tested for it.

If anything, Oare’s idea would increase the amount of testing that would need to be done.

And I wonder, If two or more quality horses go perfectly, will Oare suggest they be tested before the class is decided? After all if they are both nice shouldn’t the one who didn’t need the drugs pin over the one who did?

Oare says the options for creating quieter horses are:

1. Work them harder, which he says shortens their careers and increases the need for pain killers and anti inflammatories. He mentions longeing frequently. Perhaps USEF ought to ban excessive longeing. Longeing will never be eliminated from the warm-up ring unless USEF legislates against it. Is that what we want?

2. Learn to ride better, he said, “While learning to deal with varying temperaments is on the No. 1 “how to” list, the more rideable horse in the show ring will usually win.” Okay, so he’s not an advocate for solving the problem by increasing your riding skills.

3. Become a better trainer – Oare doesn’t have much of an answer here, except that “The ultimate goal of any horse show trainer is for the horse and rider to perform “perfectly”. So if you can’t train well through expertise. . . should you do it through drugs?!!

4. Get rid of the horse. Sell it into another discipline, “to an outfit that can “deal with it.” Oare says, “Easier said than done, particularly when you’re trying to recoup your investment.” Apparently finding the horses niche’ won’t help because you might lose money on your bad investment.

5.  Use quieting medications to supplement their work. (Gee this sounds almost therapeutic.) He talks about the honest professionals who were not trying to cheat but were trying to win while trying to protect the horses and their athletes. Egads if you do something that you shouldn’t do in order to win, how can you not call that cheating? Is accidental cheating still cheating? And just so I don’t lead you astray, horse doping for competition isn’t therapeutic.

The Missing Options:
Legalizing drugs and substances is not an option. No other sport in America is looking towards allowing drugs; in fact most of them are tightening their rules. American sports are holding athletes accountable. The hunter industry needs to do the same.

Developing horsemen-
Why not develop horsemen and women instead of athletes? Or better yet how about we develop athletic horsemen and women? Teach them to put the horse’s needs before their own, even if it means staying home or withdrawing the horse instead of competing it on drugs. Train horsemen athletes to view the horse as more than a vehicle for victory.

Develop the horse-
Take the the time to train horses thoroughly at home before exposing them to competition in order to give the horse a better chance at dealing with competition calmly.

Develop the partnership-
Take the time at home to develop the horse and rider harmony that hallmarks a partnership.

Breed horses for disposition first, talent second.

Quit over mounting riders
One of the biggest problems in the show world today is that riders are over mounted. Some trainers encourage their clients to buy horses that are outside their riding skills because they want they want winners. Parents over mount kids because they want their kids to be the best. Over mounting riders causes a lot of misery for the horse and its rider, including over biting, over working, fear and doping. Too many people, from children on ponies to professionals on imports, ride horses that are above their own riding ability. Learn when to get off of the horse that you are not capable of riding well. Trainers, stop over selling. Buyers, quit over buying.

Take Time
The rush to get into the show ring and win ribbons, has developed a culture of short cuts.  Short cut training does not create quiet horses. Teach riders to invest the time it takes to develop correctly.

What Are We Teaching People?
Horses misbehave at shows for many reasons, not the least of which is a nervous, clamping rider who transmits their show nerves to the horse. If we calm our horses with drugs should we also calm our riders with drugs? This makes for a rather unrealistic competitive experience.

Oare says, “I understand that the international world needs to be separated from the national world.” But why would we train our riders to compete with tranquilized horses and then have them face international competition where doping is forbidden?

Oare says, “The ultimate goal of any horse show trainer is for a horse/rider to perform “perfectly”. Horsemen know that perfection is unattainable and to pursue it is to chase a false goal that ends in disappointment. The pursuit of perfection causes doping in order to attain perfect performance. The pursuit of perfection also causes young equitation riders to develop eating disorders to gain perfect bodies for finals. Pursuing excellence, on the other hand, is a goal that is attainable on many levels.

The Chronicle of the Horse 
I have to mention that I was pleased that the editorial article for The Chronicle of the Horse (March 21-28,2016) did not support Ernie Oars premise.  Kudos to President and Executive Editor, Beth Rasin. In my opinion, some of her comments were spot on: “But let’s face it–if a calming drug were legal, there are plenty of stables where pretty much every horse in the barn would get it “just in case it helps a little more.” And later she said, “And regardless of whether something like ace was legal, some people would still resort to more extreme measures.  People are cheating now to try to get an advantage, and I don’t think having a legal option would end their practices.” Thanks to The Chronicle of the Horse for bringing Ernie Oar’s viewpoint to readers’ attention.

Here’s What I Take Away From Ernie Oare’s Article:
Oare wants a level playing field and he thinks this can be accomplished by legalizing ‘certain “prescribed” medications.’

A level playing field will never happen. Is it even fair? If I am able to ride my horse so it goes quietly, should you have the option to drug yours so you can beat mine? And even if all horses behaved equally perfectly, if they are not all the same quality, size and color, the playing field would not be not equal. The minute I pay $250,000 for my hunter and you can only afford $2500 for yours, the playing field is not level. When I can afford to pay “the great hunter rider” to train and show my horse  but you can only afford a mediocre trainer, the playing field is no longer level. Leveling the playing field is a faulty premise.

In my opinion, Oare’s conclusion that through doping, the horses would be “far better off” and “the real winner”, demonstrates a disregard for the horse. This opinion is cemented when Oare refers to horses as having a “shelf life’. Products that become stale or less effective and have gone past their shelf life are sent to the trash dumpster. I don’t know about your horse but mine is a living breathing animal, not a grocery store shelf product.

Oare leaves me feeling it’s all about winning and money.

What’s your opinion about using drugs on show horses?

Barbara Ellin Fox


Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Indeed! As a child in the hunting world back in the “30-years-ago-there-weren’t-syringe-disposals-at-horse-shows” era, I had *NO* idea that cheating could even occur. (How could one cheat on a horse/pony?!) I was a child, but I had NO idea that my competition (or their parents, pushing…) was using the sticky stuff on their saddles to keep their legs from swinging, that they used heel inserts to have a more dramatic “heels down” look than mine, and had *NO IDEA* there was a thing called ace that was being used at horse shows – or even at lessons. Despite that my parents refused to get me the “overhorse” pony as a child, I still was in the high ribbons, and had to LEARN how to keep my legs still, my heels downs, and how to ride my kind and gentle ponies from chipping in at the fences. Looking back, I still remember the looks of incredulousness — though I didn’t understand it at the time — as my family would show up in our little rag-tag van and little bumper pull next to the big multi-horse rigs, etc., with these little “nothing spectacular” ponies… And you know what? I still beat the cheaters! Because I had the real skill and (my whole family) put in the real time, and it was obvious.

    Only later, after *legitimately* learning and mastering these skills with suitable, incredible pony mounts (who lived out their retirement days with us as thanks for their service), did I “upgrade” to our own, home-bred but nationally trained hunter. At first, yes, I was WAY over-mounted on him, as I was accustomed to the sweet little ponies, and had several falls when he’d take the long spot on an oxer (and I wasn’t ready for that at first), bucks, and excitability. However, through just what you said, I learned from countless hours in the saddle and working with him, developing A RELATIONSHIP with him, learned HOW to ride him, how to work with him, how to anticipate his every move. And again, without *ANY CLUE* what others were doing around me in terms of cheating, we rose in the local circuit to be seasonal champions nearly every season, and to ultimately win a state hunter championship. Despite that he still had a “show horse” excitability but listened to me because we had respect for each other. In shows that led us there, at regional and state, people in the background on the old school VHS home videos said during my rounds things to the effect of: now there’s the winner, or “now that’s a team” as you couldn’t even see my riding aids and we were in such sync with each other. I know that people don’t take the time for this anymore, and as you said, throw the horses away, but to me, I couldn’t imagine subjecting horses to drugging vs taking the time needed to become the athletic horsewoman that I became, just as you suggest.

    Thanks for the post — I am long time reader, first time posting. I just had to weigh in as it boggles my mind on all fronts on this article, the drugging, the “getting rid of the horse” idea, the win at all costs idea. All of it. It’s a shame. BTW, while I am no longer in the hunter show world (a lot to do with all that you mention above, and I don’t really want to be a part of it anymore), I still ride, and operate a horse sanctuary, taking in rescues and retired horses, riding and exercising them gently/as appropriate for their ages, and letting them enjoy being horses after their long show and even amish buggy careers. I wish as many people cared about the welfare of the actual horse as you and I, and many of your readers.

    • Hi Clueless- thanks for sharing your really positive experiences. Experiences like yours build good lives and character. I admire what you wrote and of course, I’m always in favor of saving horses. They give us so much – they deserve to receive something back. And thanks for being a longtime reader. By the way, I don’t think you’re actually clueless! Barbara

  • OH boy I thought I was going to have something to contribute to this but you have covered every angle completely and thoroughly. Couldn’t agree more with every point you’ve made. I guess the only thing I could add is why has this type of riding ever been called “hunter”? A calm horse getting the exact stride to a calculated course of jumps has never happened on an actual hunt. Do away with this ridiculous idea and most of the problem will be solved. Personally I am somewhat pleased that hunter derbies at least are recognizing that the jumps should be “natural” obstacles…

    • Alli,
      Thanks for your comment. There was a time that they actually were hunters. . .Maybe a name change is next. Barbara

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