By Tyler Weith
As a young professional who puts horsemanship first, the recent US Equestrian Horse Welfare & Safety Penalty Guidelines email immediately made me feel like I had to make a statement. I work very hard to give each of my horses the individualized program they need to be successful. I don’t drug, over lunge, over ride, use improper equipment, or even contemplate how to make my horses quiet if it compromises their welfare. Over and over I watch horses who are treated with respect and compassion, perform better than the ones abused for quietness and performance.
That being said, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly attacked by the US Equestrian who wrote their new welfare guidelines in a very accusatory tone. I agree that there is a vast horse welfare problem that exists today, and I have seen it firsthand. However, I am deeply troubled with the vagueness of these new punishment guidelines, how they cater to the politics and wealth already ripping the sport apart, and finally the lack of support and understanding the US Equestrian gives to young professionals and future professionals trying to enter the industry.
As the US Equestrian is the organization that dictates my livelihood and future, I want to follow their guidelines to a T. Yet the new guidelines for punishment are so vague, it makes me afraid to horse show. First, you have to consider the amount of money we have to find as young professionals to even get into the show ring. From the office fees, USE fees, braiding costs, to the entries, supplies, trailering, products, therapies, vet costs, etc., by the end of the show week we are left with nothing. To see violation penalties in the tens of thousands of dollar range, is very hard to swallow. To couple that with violations described with words like “unintended”, “excessive”, “illegal”, “improper” with no further explanation, it’s all incredibly concerning.
Now I’ve worked as a paralegal, taken my fair share of business law and contracts courses, and the vagueness of the violations on the welfare guidelines is shocking. Without clarity, it makes horse showing which is already so financially cumbersome, absolutely terrifying. It puts complete burden of comprehending the violations on the trainer. In an industry where we all are clawing to get some type of recognition, working untold hours for very little financial reward, we now have to deal with interpreting guidelines that could suddenly suspend us from the organization that ultimately determines our career opportunities and livelihood. Without absolute clarity on the violations, how can the US Equestrian possibly link them with insanely high penalty fees?
For example, “unintended death”. We all know someone who has lost a horse at a horse show to a freak “unintended” accident. I watched a horse crash this summer in a triple….this was a prominent rising young rider….the horse had to be loaded on an ambulance trailer right there in the ring. Let’s say it had to be put down for a broken bone or what have you. Does this young professional truly get a “suspension of 36 months and $36,000.00 fine and must appear before the Hearing Panel and provide proof of rehabilitation before being eligible to regain membership”? They are animals and accidents happen. The fairest and most honest competitors can still experience an unintended death. Does it mean no penalties or violation guidelines should be written surrounding “unintended death” of an equine, absolutely not. It simply means the violations sanctioned with huge penalty fees need to be clearly and explicitly clarified. The way it is currently worded makes the USE look completely out of touch with real-life horse show situations.
This leads me to speculation on where the US Equestrian is going and who it is choosing to cater to. Many will point to the section of the email where it says the penalty range is a guideline only determined by Hearing Committee Panels. Personally, I find this to be the scariest part of the entire welfare guidelines:
“Depending on the facts and circumstances of each case, a Hearing Committee Panel may determine that no purpose is served by imposing a penalty within the range provided in these Guidelines. In some cases, a penalty below the stated range, or no penalty at all, may be warranted. Conversely, a Hearing Committee Panel may determine that the facts and circumstances of a specific case may call for the imposition of penalties above or otherwise outside of a stated range. Examples include, but not are limited to, prior rule violations, egregious misconduct, the need for increased deterrence, or certain policy considerations.”
The first thing that comes to mind is who makes up the Hearing Committee Panel? Not only do I have no clarity on what the violations specifically mean, including what the words like “unintended”, “excessive”, “illegal”, “improper” convey, I am now being reassured that in some cases a penalty may be lower than the stated range or in some cases nothing. All to be determined by a Hearing Committee Panel which is described with no further detail. Let’s not pretend that wealth and politics don’t play a integral part in this industry. Let’s also not pretend that these politics and finances couldn’t have any impact on the findings of some Hearing Committee Panel. If the US Equestrian is committed to making sure they don’t have an impact, then I would simply call for more clarity on the specifics regarding the panel, and their commitment to fairness.
As a young professional, I don’t have many political advantages, and I certainly have no financial advantages. I can’t help but feel completely ignored and unrepresented by an organization that truly determines my future. It seems the US Equestrian recently tried to express its commitment to transparency. This Welfare & Safety Penalty Guidelines couldn’t be farther from transparent. As someone climbing the ladder, putting my heart and soul into these animals, I want to feel proud to be part of an organization that is hopefully helping me succeed. Instead, membership fees are increasing, drug testing fees are going up, penalties are at an astronomical level, and in the end the vagueness of the new violations are appalling. I am asking for the US Equestrian to rethink their commitment to young professionals and future professionals, trying to make their mark in this industry. Most of us put our horses’ welfare first. Most of us work 7 days a week and do everything from mucking and grooming, to showing and training. The US Equestrian has certainly put their time into determining the money they’d like to receive in cases of violations, but they have done everyone else a disservice who already holds horsemanship above everything else. We are all trying to survive in this turbulent industry, but we need clarity and support.
The recent Horse Welfare & Safety Penalty Guidelines email is very troubling. It shows a lack of explanation of violations using terms that are extremely vague; it assumes none of us put horsemanship first as many of us do; and finally, it doesn’t attempt to consider young professionals like myself, who are trying to navigate their way into the industry.