Drugs, ponies, and kids are a poor mixture.

Not long ago horse sites on the internet had a heated discussion about a pony named Humble. Humble  died at the Devon horse show after receiving an injection on the show grounds. NY Times reporter WALT BOGDANICH wrote an article that really fanned the flames in this discussion. You can read the article

First let me say, I’m not interested in defending or crucifying the pony trainer/owner of Humble for what drugs they did or did not administer to this 9 year old pony. That’s been thoroughly covered elsewhere online and with USEF. I’m more concerned about the broader topics that are hit on in the NY Times article.

Making the Right Choices

The issue of lame horses and horse shows is relative and at some levels it’s personal.  By personal I mean when it is in the limits of legality it becomes a decision that you have to make with your veterinarian. The relative part has to do with the type of lameness and the type of competition. Is it unkind to give an anti-inflammatory to an old horse for a beginner child to compete at a schooling show? That’s another personal, perhaps moral decision. Is it okay to administer an anti-inflammatory to any horse that has a temporary soreness or injury in order to compete in a show?

I’m not here to judge your belief on degrees on the graduating scale of “when is it okay?” and “Is it still okay?”.  But I’ll tell you that normally my stance is, if they need pain meds, they need rest and if they need rest they should stay home.  So, for me it’s “No”  to medication, even in the framework of USEF legal. But that’s my choice/decision and its one that each of us has to make ourselves.

Teaching the Whole Kid

I don’t just teach kids to ride.  I teach the whole kid. They learn about putting the horse first, horse care, perseverance, responsibility, sportsmanship and a pot-load of other character building skills. And I do it with horses and ponies. If a horse comes up lame, my recommendation is always to take care of the horse first and make sure my student’s priorities are in the correct order.

Life does not always go the way we want it to. It’s part of my job to teach students how to handle disappointments, as well as success. And sometimes they teach me.  I remember an 11 year old who stopped in the middle of her dressage test at her first show to ask the judge if she could leave the arena. The pony she rode felt off and the girl didn’t want to require the pony continue. I felt like I’d won the blue ribbon that day.

Drugs are Old News

Drugging in the horse world is as old as competition.  It’s true that today’s drugs are more prolific than the drugs were in earlier years but even knowing that, it’s shocking that performance horses are given things like cocaine and anti-psychotics. No matter what USEF does to limit drug use, there are those trainers who will find something that’s not yet being tested.

There are trainers who drug horses to change their dispositions. Why not take the time to train your horses and teach your riders to ride them, instead of using mind altering chemicals? Take a look at some of western pleasure competitions for junior horses. The young horses creep around so slowly that they look arthritic. And what about horses in hunter under saddle that travel the arena half asleep? This is usually the result of tranquilizers, blood withdrawal or magnesium sulfate, or something else that numbs the horse’s mind and makes him unnaturally calm. Or from hours of pre-dawn lunging.

Methods Other Than Drugs

But even without drugs, bad people find ways to short cut training. It was the tack pole or plain bamboo poling for hunters and jumpers. These were used to make sure the horses didn’t hit rails with their forelegs. And then there’s the head carriage issue.  I’ve seen trainers tie horses with their heads high enough their necks were almost perpendicular to the ground. The next day the horse’s neck muscles hurt so badly it wouldn’t attempt to raise its head. But Western trainers aren’t the only ones. Bad English trainers rely on devices such as nose bands lined with tacks, draw reins, and rollkur. And did I mention the electric reins I’ve seen to make the western horse turn quickly?

What is Going On?

If it’s not obvious now, my big question here is who are we and what are we teaching? Which brings me to the real issue that caused me to write this post.

The NY Times article writes, “Ms. Williams had paid thousands of dollars to lease a pony for Katie to ride in a hunter competition, a 12th birthday present.”  and later “A week before Devon, Kristen Williams took Katie, her daughter, to a Florida show to try out Royal T, the pony she planned to ride at Devon. Katie’s friend Katie Ray had also traveled to Florida to try out her pony, Humble. Both ponies were owned and trained by Ms. Mandarino.”

I’m Going a Bit Bonkers

Okay, so any of you who know me personally are visualizing me jumping up and down in an agitated condition screeching “What? What? They did WHAT?!!!!”

I love riders who can catch ride any horse at any time but just dropping in to ride someone else’s fancy pony so you can say you rode in the Devon show is a little different. These two girls  received rides at Devon costing thousands of dollars as gifts for becoming 12 year olds.  (I’m not even going down the path of what they will expect at 16!) What is the value in this method of teaching?

We all ride and teach for different reasons and I suppose I have to agree that we all reap different benefits from the experience.  But whatever happened to the value of the “journey”?  You know what I’m talking about. The value of  the hard work, the hours, the disappointments, successes…….. Is this what we’ve come to?

Is it so important to hit the “big time” by the time you’re 12 that you have to rent a pony that can probably do the job without you? And what if he’s loaded up on character enhancing supplements?  I’m not sure who I’m the most annoyed at here; the trainer who endorses this method of training for both the pony and the rider, or the mother who is teaching her child that success can be bought. I’ll be scratching my head for a long time because of this….

Some days

There are times our “industry” seems like a run away train.  That’s why it is so important to know who you are, what you stand for, and what you want to teach your students. Some “trainers” are in it for the money. Others are in this business because they love horses, love kids (or adults), and have something almost priceless to offer.  Which one are you?

Thanks for joining me on the Riding Instructor

Barbara Ellin Fox



For information about viewing password protected posts click the button below

Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Hi Barbara,

    I have been a riding instructor for over 30 years. I made a decision years ago to prepare my students as if they are going to show, and then if they don’t they will be good riders progressing in the sport. I made that decision because I am so disturbed by horse show drugging. If I ever start feeling conflicted about taking kids to shows, and knowing that other horses at those shows will be drugged either to mask lameness or for mood enhancement, I ask myself this question: What are we teaching our children? On one hand, we are terrified that they might consider using drugs, and on the other hand, we know that many trainers are giving their children’s horses drugs, and that those children’s parents may have hoped their children would ride in order to keep them away from drugs! And I can only imagine the conversations those drugging trainers are having with their parents! What could they be saying that the parents would approve of? That aspect makes me embarrassed to be a horse show participant when I know what’s really going on. I am an avid reader of The Chronicle of the Horse, and its forums, and so happy to have it as a tool. But I still feel the drugging issue is not really being addressed in any way that will change it. What do you think? And your readers?

    • Hi Brandy,
      This is such a good comment. For the instructor it comes down to integrity and identifying who you actually are and what you stand for. You obviously know those things about yourself. There will be a certain group of your students, over the course of time, who will adopt your values and if they depart for awhile, they’ll eventually return to them. They’re the future. They’ll help hold the line.
      As far as parent go, the best we can do is to inform them and tell them the truth. The only place you have control is with your own barn/students, but even then you have to be vigilant. So many parents are not horse people and the lure of the win and the horse show excitement can be a pretty heady experience. They want their kids to be winners and most parents will go the extra mile to give their kids whatever it takes to achieve their goals. I have to believe that most parents want the best for their children and those who allow their kids to ride a drugged horse fall into one of two categories. 1. they’re oblivious to what it really is and means, believing the horse gets vitamins, medication, something for nerves. . . whatever words these shady trainers are using to disguise what they are doing, not understanding that it is detrimental to the horse and potentially dangerous to the child, and it’s also cheating.They are trusting the professional because he or she is the authority. The trainer says it’s alright and they believe him. Group 2 sadly is the parent who will win at any cost, even using drugs and cheating; they are teaching and allowing their children to be taught the same thing. We can hope to educate some of group #1 but no one is going to change group #2 and the instructor with integrity doesn’t need them in their barn.
      I agree with you, there is not enough being done about drugs, but at the same time, people who drug horses find ways to sneak around what is in place. Unless trainers decide to become accountable it’s a battle that won’t be won. You are such a good example of the kind of instructor/trainer who can help this problem. You’re right, it is embarrassing but it’s worse that that. It’s dangerous. I think speaking out, taking a stand and educating our own riders and their parents are the most effective weapons we have. It may not seem like much but it’s the best way I know to develop accountable horsemen.
      Thanks for your post. Keep up your good work. You can probably tell this is a hot button for me, too!

  • I’m scratching my head with you on this one, Barbara.

    Thank you for summing up what I feel. You are not alone out there in your thoughts.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}