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….
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