On Hunters and Horsemen

By Robin Greenwood

Probably our biggest controversy in the Hunter Jumper world at this time is the use of drugs on horses. This is not a new problem. Drug rules and drug testing went into effect sometime in the early 1970s. Before that quite a few show hunters showed on Ace Promazine Not enough Ace to make them look like they were going nowhere but enough that it took the edge off the hotter horses. Ace was easily detectable in the blood and the search for new avenues for sedating horses began. If memory serves the next big thing was Reserpine. Reserpine was a long-lasting human anti-psychotic drug which worked well on many horses. While low doses of ace promazine seem to be relatively harmless in humans, the side effects of Reserpine were many. Reserpine was popular because there was no test for it. Time passed and the test for reserpine was developed and a lot of horse people got caught from frozen samples. A quick Google search shows that because of its many side effects it is rarely used in humans today. It takes a devious mind to think of giving this to a horse, yet when it “works” it becomes acceptable. 

So the problem isn’t new but we seem to have come to a place where many horse people believe that we are doing our horses a favor to sedate them to do the job they need to do. I’ve heard professionals say that it saves wear and tear on the horses and that they need to be worked too hard to be quiet enough. What has happened? How have we gotten to a point where our animals need to be sedated and tranquilized to do their job. Where did we come up with a benchmark that is unrealistic for the animal that is doing it. We expect our horses to perform in a way that is unnatural for them, but is pleasing for us to watch.  I can compare it to what is happened with western pleasure horses. To me and to most people I know in the hunter and jumper industry the western pleasure horse goes in an unnatural and horrible way. Why is what we are doing to our animals so different? I hear owners and riders saying they believe that allowing horses to be tranquilized would be a better solution to the problem then some of the drugs that are being used now. I actually wrote an article that was published in the Chronicle of the Horse where I said that myself in a very tongue-in-cheek way. Why are we needing to manufacture the way our show hunter horses perform?

One solution that is often repeated is that we need to get judges to penalize the overly quiet and dull horse. However, we are working on at least a second generation of judges who have been raised watching horses go slower and slower. Hunters are meant to be judged on jumping style, yet no where can I find a clear definition of what that is. A show hunter should jump with the basic expectations of a high forearm, tight knees and a round top line. But he also needs expression and animation – some pop- in my opinion. If we except the tight kneed but dull jump that is often seen in competition, we are doing our horses a disservice. 

One problem is that we are not teaching students to ride and be horse people. We are teaching them to show. Horses, for many, are not unlike a tennis racket. In many places, riders are getting boosted onto their tacked-up horse by a groom, take their lesson, hand off their horse to the same groom and leave the barn. When at the shows, the horse is often schooled for them in the schooling area, and the rider is put back on to show. While this is a perfectly legitimate way to prepare a horse, it seems it would be better served for younger riders to ride through this process themselves. They don’t have the opportunity to develop the relationship with their horse that might cause them to look differently at what is done to him. Riders aren’t encouraged to learn what routine is followed to get their horse to the show ring. In many cases, they would not be told if asked and they have no idea what their horse is being given.

As teacher, we need to teach all aspects of horsemanship. If offered, kids want to know how to clean stalls, wrap legs and care for their horses after the show. I believe we should be teaching riders to be thinkers and not just to follow directions like an automaton. Horse care is something to be proud of and it deepens the relationship to the animal. Not every rider has the time or availability to do full care of their own horse, but they certainly should know how it is done. Ronnie Mutch (study up kids) once said, “As a professional you should be able to do everything at least as well as the people you hire to assist you.” You can’t be a Horseman if you can’t care for a horse. 

At the end of the day, my question to trainers riders and owners is why? I know in sport it’s often all about the winning, but many people who tell me how much they love their horses and how much those animals mean to them have no ethical problem with giving them drugs. Horses are so expensive now that I think trainers are often fixated with the need to win or lose the client. And, like all sport, some will go to any length to win. Would you let your friend give your dog IV magnesium when he was anxious knowing that if it didn’t kill him he would be calmer? How about giving him a high dose of GABA which might actually increase anxiety as well as heart rate and blood pressure? 

I am 100% supportive of stiffer penalties for drug offenses. I also think we would see a huge change if owners and the horses were suspended as well. Many owners and parents don’t know or have no interest in what happens with the horses in order for them to show. Often, they have no idea that any of these issues even exist.

I am not always popular with other professionals. Perhaps from being an owner and amateur before I turned professional, my outlook is different. I have bred and raised many ponies, and the worry of where they will end up and how they will be cared for has given me an entirely different sense of concern as well. Horse are a huge gift in many of our lives. We have an obligation to care for and protect them if we are using them for our own benefit. It’s hard for me to believe that you “love” your horse when you allow him to be drugged in order to win a ribbon on him. I get that the stakes are higher than the small piece of cloth, but not at the expense of our horses.

CLICK HERE to read Robin Greenwood’s article, “Are Drug Rules Putting Our Horses At Greater Danger?”