It Shouldn’t Be Our Goal to Become FEI

Yesterday’s piece was fact. (Click here to read yesterday’s piece) This editorial here, today, this is my opinion. Here we go! If you agree with any of these points, please copy and paste them with the subject line Medroxyprogesterone Acetate Ban and email to Murray Kessler ([email protected]), Bill Moroney ([email protected]), [email protected], and Mary Babick ([email protected]).

I love horses. That’s why I wake up early everyday and set to work before I leave my bed. I love horse shows. In 2015, I went to about 64 horse shows. Last year was tamer, clocking in at about 46. I’m anticipating about 40 this year, but we’ll see. I never seem to anticipate as many as I do.  I live in Canton, New York, which means a lot of days and all nights on the road. In the office at home, we don’t have a “days since workplace accident” – we have a “days since the last all-nighter.” Between Adam and me, the number almost never hits double digits.

These horse shows were not all the glamorous Wellington, Coachella, Pin Oak, and Devon from my Facebook. This is everything – schooling shows, local beyond backyard shows, IEA, IHSA, B & C shows, huge county finals, standalone derbies, jumper classics, and the occasional three day event. Top to bottom, every territory of North America,  I love every day I get to spend at a horse show. I watch as many rounds as I have time for in between work. I wait to see the jog or scores called to see if my opinion matched who was sitting in the box that day. I see horses I’ve never seen before and the same ones come week after week and compete. I absorb everything I possibly can.

Here is what I see in 90% of the classes: a riding competition.

I would say across the board, across all levels, competitions, types, regions, – what I see is people’s results being determined by how they rode that round on that day. I see some judging errors, but not a ton. It usually comes down to the ride someone put in. I see some classes come down to pure quality of the animal, but usually it comes down to accuracy and ride put in. I see some horses from frequent drugging violators that could be violating again at that moment, but again it usually comes down to the riding competition.

This is hard to accept. This is hard to tell your client. It is easy to say “the footing is bad” or “the judging is bad” or “that horse cost more than yours,” and yes, those things combine to be true about 10% of the time. But the real culprit to you not winning is your riding. It is not because other people drugged. It is not due to lack of even playing field. It is because you didn’t practice hard enough or your mental game wasn’t strong or you are physically weak. I have never lost a class “due to drugging” by my fellow competitors. I have lost many classes due to my own incompetency. Those are two totally different things. I take responsibility for myself and my actions in one and blame others in the other.

I also do not believe that many horses are being drugged outside legal limits across the board (with the exception of environmental contamination, which neither US Equestrian or horse show facilities make any effort to control). The testers are out in full force. If they test a quarter of the blood they pull, people should be caught (and they are), punished (and they are), and ostracized (which they are not and US Equestrian needs to find a method to deal with that).  Again, it is easy to say people are winning “because they are drugging,” but histrionics and armchair quarterbacking aside, how many people really truly are drugging? Is this as big a problem as we perceive?

Maybe it is, but again, this is a call for data and transparency from USEF. I am a scientist by training. I earned a Ph.D. in Chemistry from University of California, Berkeley, have published eight peer reviewed papers, and presented at top level conferences all over the world. USEF, communicate with us. Give us stats. Give us numbers. Tell us how many horses you tested this month and what came up. Tell us how January 2017 differed from January 2016. What are the patterns? What is happening? What are the trends? Be clear. Educate us.

Question 1: is this really about the animal? When I look around the horse show, there are many bigger issues. Horse shows 52 weeks a year. Wouldn’t an “off month” consolidate the sport and make horses, owners, riders, and spectators more excited and invested into the sport. Could we promote horse welfare by agreeing on a 48 week per year show cycle? Other things I have seen in the last year:  Stewards not checking for breakaway cups on both sides of the jumps leading to rotational falls in the hunters;  lunging areas with either no footing or footing so deep that injury seem inevitable; horses in designated pony schooling areas; traffic and congestion of all forms; and rings going into the dark as jumps can barely be seen.

Question 2: if Depo balances hormones and makes the animal feel comfortable, won’t the animal go slower and more relaxed? Why is that a bad thing? Don’t we want our performance horses to be as comfortable as possible? Is this really an issue? I have yet to see data that the horse is “quieter,” and even if it is, if it is for the right reasons, is that a real issue? Don’t give Depo too much efficacy as a quieting agent. Depo does not have a doping-effect, but might have anti-anxiety effect. Therefore, it should not make/does not make the difference between quiet and wild. Why go after something that has a relatively benign effect and delivery system when there are so many proven doping, dangerous drugs we could be attacking right now? Why is USEF targeting Depo as a quieting agent while they take sponsorship money from Farmvet and Perfect Products who both dispense and promote quieting agents? There is an inherent disconnect here.

Question 3: Has the larger picture been considered for not only Depo, but all legal national medications? Every time we make new rules, we eliminate more horses from doing this job. If we go to FEI, very few horses can compete. If this “push to FEI” next goes to the eradication of the NSAIDS, that will lead to scores of horses not having a job anymore. When horses don’t have a job, they get on a truck. If we ban Depo, then NSAIDS, and say 10,000 horses are suddenly no longer suitable for competition, are we all in agreement that those horses may become meat? What about 100,000 horses. How many horses will be affected by this ruling? If USEF cannot provide us with a direct number from survey data or other intel, we shouldn’t even be discussing this as a possibility. I think a horse with a job, even if it does that job with a little help, is better horsemanship and horse welfare than it not having a job at all.

Question 4: Does this momentum just drive even more people to local shows? I see the local shows booming. And yes, with the Depo ban and absolutely if more FEI-based rules are attempted, I might just take some of my own lease ponies and not allow them to do USEF. recognized shows. Does that help the sport or industry? I believe it helps neither. But it really doesn’t hurt me at all. Which is the point US Equestrian just doesn’t seem to grasp. I could get the same amount (and consistently have) for several of my ponies on an unrated circuit as on a rated circuit. Competitive local circuits command the same low to mid level pricing as many regional A circuits for horses and ponies.

Question 5: What about the families you drive away from this sport? Every single drug test, every single requirement for a scoreboard, every single thing we regulate at a horse show prices another family out of this sport. At a time of peak haves and have-nots, can we really afford to price out the (very few) middle of the road families that are left? I think we need to be open arms welcoming everyone to this sport right now. We shoud make people feel like this is the sport for them and it is worth all of their sacrifice.

And please do not tell me that the education lies on the USEF website.  I tried to use the search function to find information about the recent press release regarding new hearings and again to find out more about the Depo Town Hall Meeting. I can’t figure out how to use it and I am pretty good at this. I went to the Town Hall page and there is nothing listed about this one. When it stops being easy, people stop looking, and the sport becomes less transparent.

The new Horse Reports are mismatched, extemely disorganized, and lack such usability that data nerds like me don’t even want to use it. On the old USEF horse reports, I could count horses’ number of Champions in about 30 seconds per horse. Go on usef.org, right now. Select any horse and let me know how long it takes you to come up with that same intel. It was taking me about 20 minutes with horses with good records. Is my pony qualified for Pony Finals and how many tricolors does it have in the qualifying period? So hard to figure out. It’s like whomever designed it has never used the control F to find something on a page. It used to be so easy.

Be persistent. You are the ones that will make this opaque black box go to dark gray, then heather gray, murky, and eventually crystal clear. This is our sport, all of us- let’s take responsibility for it. Email the powers in charge of these decisions and express yourself today!