A Win at Any Cost?

The horse show scene often is one of pageantry, color, and excitement. There are handsome horses groomed until they shine, riders dressed in colorful or formal garments who ride with skill and aplomb, and judges who observe every movement and mark their scorecards with placings that can increase a horse's worth and elevate the rider's standing in the equine community.

Frequently, the shows are festive occasions, complete with parties, bejeweled women, and tuxedo-clad men combined with much pomp and circumstance. To some, horse shows are a means to improved social standing; to others, they represent a chance to increase the value of their horse. To others, they simply represent a way in which to compete and enjoy a horse.

Fortunately, the latter group--horse owners competing for the fun and thrill of it all--represent the vast majority in the equine world. They are weekend warriors, traveling to shows large and small, often competing only for a ribbon and the pride they take in a job well done.

Normally, although not always, this is the group that adheres to all of the show rules. It simply isn't worth the possibility of a reprimand or suspension to violate them, even if they were so inclined. Yet, the show world has its dark side. There is a minority out there that will do whatever it takes to win. They bend the rules until they break, and their first consideration is not for the welfare of the horse, but rather for their own ego or, in some cases, pocketbook. This segment of horse owners has no qualms about seeking that extra edge--be it the use of drugs or the abusing of an athlete.

Abuses aimed at giving an exhibitor an edge are not new. They have been around since horse shows were first held. Breed registries, associations, and horse show officials are fully aware that they exist and have launched an unrelenting war against them.

The abuses vary by breed and discipline; in some cases, the abuse for one breed is designed to elicit a totally different outcome than it would in another breed. In some stock horse breeds, for example, an exhibitor might seek to deaden the muscles and nerves in a horse's tail so that it can't be raised or flicked while performing. By contrast, in the Arabian horse world, show management has fought the placing of caustic substances--such as ginger--into the horse's rectum so that he will hold its tail even higher than he normally would.

The abuses are myriad and varied. Some trainers of jumping horses use a pole to whack a horse on the front cannon bones as he rises to a jump. The theory is that the pain will tell the horse he must jump higher to avoid being struck. Others will tie up the head of a stock horse for hours on end so that he will carry his head low when he's released to perform in a Western pleasure class.

Abuses can be on the bizarre side. There have been cases where horses which show in classes that call for animation and style have been fitted with opaque contact lenses. When the horse enters the ring, he is virtually blind and must depend totally on the rider's cues. Obviously, a horse which can't see where he is going will keep his ears forward throughout the class, and fear will add a degree of animation.

For the Horse

Fortunately, there is a strong army of concerned individuals seeking to protect the horse from show ring abuses. One of the most formidable soldiers in this army is US Equestrian, formerly the American Horse Shows Association. The organization represents 26 breeds and disciplines. Its prime weapon against drug abuse is a state-of-the-art laboratory in Ithaca, N.Y., that can detect even minute quantities of forbidden drugs in a horse's blood or urine.

In addition to the 26 breeds and disciplines that are members of US Equestrian, the organization contracts with others, such as the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and the American Saddlebred Horse Association (ASHA), to conduct drug tests for them.

As the umbrella organization for these 26 breeds and disciplines, US Equestrian publishes a rule book that addresses abuse issues for the member registries and associations. More about US Equestrian and its drug testing laboratory later.

The breed registries also have been soldiers in the forefront of this war against abuse. Registry rule books contain sections that establish rules to eliminate abuse and set penalties for those found guilty of violating these rules.

However, says Gary Griffith, executive director of registrations for AQHA and the person who oversees the registry's drug program, horse abusers are a versatile and cunning lot who change tactics when loopholes around their abuses are closed. When a new test is developed to identify an illegal drug, for example, he says, "It sends the cheaters out to find something else."

Stock Horses

A practice as blatant as deadening tails of show stock horses is another example of cheating. In the early days, Griffith says, perpetrators just cut through muscles and nerves so the horse was unable to lift or switch its tail. When that practice was outlawed, the perpetrators simply switched to blocking nerves and muscles with drugs. The result was the same: The horse couldn't make use of his tail in normal fashion. Some horses had their entire tails slough off because of misuse of this practice.

AQHA went to war against this form of abuse, spending thousands of dollars in research, much of it at Colorado State University, to come up with ways to detect tails that had been deadened with drugs. They were successful, and the number of tails being blocked declined.

However, the war is not over. "Some people may still be blocking tails," Griffith says. "We catch one every once in a while."

Other abuses take place in the stalls rather than in the show ring itself. The practice of tying a horse's head in a low or high position is one of them. To fight this abuse, monitors affiliated with stock horse registries often tour the barn area.

In the Appaloosa breed, the monitors normally are armed with video cameras to record any abuses that are observed, especially at major shows.

AQHA also is battling this practice with new rules and regulations that make tying a horse's head down a detriment to success, rather than an aid. For some time, judges were placing horses well which carried their heads extremely low and traveled in shuffling, almost stumbling gaits. That has changed with the introduction of new judging rules that likely will serve as a greater deterrent than penalties for rule violations. This past summer the AQHA distributed a letter and video to every approved AQHA judge clarifying the criteria for judging a Western pleasure class--the class that has stimulated the tying up or down of a horse's head.

The video details two clarifications of gaits called for in Western pleasure. Exhibitors are now required to extend the jog in at least one direction in all open, amateur, and youth classes. They might be asked to do the same in novice classes. The goal is obvious. "Peanut rollers," those horses jogging along very slowly with their noses just above the ground, will be forced to move forward with more speed. If they keep their noses near the ground, they will become ungainly when moved out and won't be highly placed. The new rules call for much the same in the lope. The goal is to rid the show ring of sometimes abused, mechanical-looking Western pleasure horses which slog through their routines in depressed fashion.

AQHA also has turned its attention to halter classes with some new rules and regulations. One of the key changes, which was instituted at the 2003 AQHA World Championship Show in Oklahoma City in October 2003, is: "Horses must walk and trot in the serpentine to each judge. If the judge cannot see a horse walk or trot, the exhibitor will be given three opportunities to do so to each judge, limited to a total of six attempts. If unsuccessful, the horse will be excused from the class." The goal is to make certain that each judge has an opportunity to evaluate the halter horse for lameness.

The new rules also state that "enhanced drug testing will be done."

Teeth in the Rules

Most registries and associations wield the clubs of fines and suspensions when horse show abuses are found. The Appaloosa Horse Club (ApHC), says Keri LeForce, the person in charge of shows for the registry, can levy fines of up to $5,000 per drug violation. The organization also uses suspension as a rule. The suspension can vary from weeks to forever, depending on the offense and, in the case of drugs, the type of medication used.

The ApHC, LeForce says, also makes use of a three-strike rule. Generally speaking, it works like this: First offense of the drug rule, $1,000 fine; second offense, $2,500 fine; third offense, lifetime suspension.

During national and world championship shows, LeForce says, surveillance for potential abuse is heightened. She says barn monitors roam the stall and exercise areas with video cameras, prepared to record any abuse observed. All participants are urged to be vigilant and to report any cases of abuse they observe.

"In an industry this vast," LeForce says, "we need the help of participants to monitor what is going on."

Going through the list of abuses against which the ApHC is guarding underlines the length to which some unscrupulous exhibitors will go. The rules that follow are taken directly from the ApHC rulebook, but they are virtually the same for AQHA and the American Paint Horse Registry. Forbidden are the following:

  • Placing an object in a horse's mouth in a manner as to cause undue discomfort or distress;
  • Tying a horse in a manner as to cause undue discomfort or distress including, but not limited to, in a stall, trailer, or when longeing or driving;
  • Letting blood from a horse;
  • Using inhumane training techniques, equipment, or methods, including, but not limited to, poling or striking horse's legs with objects (i.e. tack poles, jump poles, etc.);
  • Attaching any item or appliance that restricts movement or circulation of the tail;
  • Intentional inhumane treatment that causes a horse to bleed;
  • Use of inhumane equipment including, but not limited to, saw-tooth bits, hock hobbles, tack collars, or tack hackamores;
  • Any surgical procedure or injection of any foreign substance or drug which could affect the horse's performance or alter its natural conformation or appearance;
  • Exhibiting a horse that appears to be sullen, dull, lethargic, emaciated, drawn, or overly tired;
  • Exhibiting a horse that has an open, raw, or bleeding sore that repeatedly comes in contact with the hackamore; and
  • Withholding food and/or water for prolonged periods of time such that it causes undue discomfort or distress to the horse.

These rules let us know that abuses with stock horses--such as letting blood or withholding feed and water--are aimed at sending into the show ring a horse which travels slowly and mechanically. As indicated by the new AQHA rules, judging standards at stock horse shows are being changed.

Arabian Abuse

In other breeds, the abuses observed are designed to achieve a totally opposite effect. The Arabian breed is an example.

Show ring abuses with Arabian horses show up more in halter competition than in performance classes, says George Johnson, judges and stewards commissioner at the American and Canadian National Shows for the Arabian Horse Association. (In 2003, the Arabian Horse Registry and International Arabian Horse Association merged to form the Arabian Horse Association.)

The classic abuse through the years, he says, has been gingering--placing ginger in the rectum so the horse will be inclined to carry his tail aloft. Vigilance on the part of ring stewards has cut down on the abuse, he says.

Other abuses that stewards are told to watch for include beating horses with whips or undue spurring when being ridden. "I back my stewards to the hilt," Johnson says. "If they note an abuse and disqualify an exhibitor, they know I will back them.

"It is getting better," he says of the abuse scene, "but it still has a long way to go. I don't understand the mentality of people who abuse show horses. It is stupid. It's all counter-productive."

US Equestrian is at the Arabian national shows in force to carry out in-depth drug testing. They also test at selected other Arabian shows throughout the year.

Although these wouldn't be considered classic cases of abuse, the Arabian Horse Association also forbids the use of cosmetics to cover blemishes and the use of surgery to enhance a horse's appearance. In a sensational case several years ago, a trainer was accused of having surgery carried out to improve the look of the throatlatch in some of the horses he was showing. The end result, after much litigation, was the barring of the trainer from setting foot on an Arabian show ground for five years. That suspension ends next year.

Morgan/Saddlebred Abuse

Another breed that strives for more animation than is normally seen in stock horses is the Morgan. Fred Braden, executive director of the American Morgan Association, says that, thanks to concerned owners and a "good mix of stewards" along with educated judges, abuse at Morgan shows is kept to a minimum. The association is a member of US Equestrian and, generally speaking, Braden says, the association stays out of its way in the matter of rule enforcement.

However, he says, the Morgan association has added some rules of its own in addition to those promulgated by US Equestrian. For example, Braden explains, many of the devices that are considered normal tools in a training barn are not allowed on the grounds during a Morgan show. Included are ankle chains and "stretchies" designed to encourage a horse to raise its legs higher when competing in classes that call for a high-reaching trot and animation.

"Almost anything they use in the training barn, we don't allow on the show grounds," Braden says.

The American Saddlebred Horse Association, another breed that strives for animation in its show horses, is a member of US Equestrian, and it does make use of the organization's drug testing capability, says Dede Gatlin, technical coordinator for the association. US Equestrian is in charge of drug testing at designated major shows, she says, with the association deciding which classes they want tested, along with which placings within a particular class.

On guard against abuse of horses on the show ground, she says, are stewards. There could be three or four of them on the grounds at major shows, she says.

Eventing Abuses

Eventing is a demanding sport in which horses compete in dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping. When one moves up in ranks, topping out at the Olympic level, it gets even more demanding. Jumps are more difficult, and the horse is required to perform in what amounts to a time trial. Some untalented riders can be tempted to use whip and spur to get the best possible effort from the horse. The USA Eventing Association, which is affiliated with US Equestrian, has taken note of this potential and has crafted rules to prevent abuse, as well as to punish the guilty when it does happen.

There are four definite rules that must not be violated if a rider is to avoid being disqualified at an event, says Sharon Gallagher, director of competition for the USA Eventing Association. They are:

  • Riding an exhausted horse;
  • Excessive pressing of a tired horse;
  • Excessive use of whip, spurs, and/or bit; and
  • Riding an obviously lame horse.

Rapping or poling is forbidden. Anyone caught rapping or poling a horse on the grounds is summarily disqualified. The rules also specifically address just how, when, and where the whip may be used. "The use of the whip," the rules clearly state, "must be for a good reason, at an appropriate time, in the right place, and with appropriate severity." The rules go on to outline the following concerning use of the whip:

Reason--The whip must only be used either as an aid to encourage the horse forward or as a reprimand.

Time--As an aid, the only appropriate time is when a horse is reluctant to go forward under normal aids of the seat and legs. As a reprimand, the only appropriate time is immediately after a horse has been disobedient, e.g. napping or refusing. The whip should not be used after elimination. The whip should not be used after a horse has jumped the last fence of a course.

Place--As an aid to go forward, the whip may be used down the shoulder or behind the rider's leg. As a reprimand, it must only be used behind the rider's leg. It must never be used overhand, e.g. a whip in the right hand being used on the left flank. The use of a whip on a horse's head, neck, etc., is always excessive use.

Severity--As a reprimand only, a horse may be hit hard. However, it should never be hit more than three times for any one incident. If a horse is marked by the whip, e.g. the skin is broken, its use is excessive.

The rules also state that neither spurs nor bit can be used to reprimand a horse.

Added to the rules just recently is an article that deals with dangerous riding. "Any competitor," the rule states, "who rides in such a way as to constitute a hazard to the safety or well-being of the competitor, horse, other competitors, their horses, spectators, or others will be penalized accordingly."

The penalty can range from 25 penalty points to elimination, depending on the severity of the infraction.

During eventing competitions, the people charged with enforcing rules are known as the Ground Jury. The rules become inflexible where the Ground Jury's authority is concerned: "If such actions (abuse) are reported, the Ground Jury shall decide if there is a case to be answered. If an individual member of the Ground Jury observes such actions, he is obliged to disqualify the competitor forthwith on his own authority. There is no appeal against a Ground Jury's decision in a case of abuse."

Cutting Horse Abuse

Cutting has little in common with eventing, but some strict rules concerning abuse, combined with penalties, exist there as well. In cutting, the exhibitor moves into a herd of cattle, selects one, and drives it free of the group. The contest involves the ability of horse and rider to prevent the chosen animal from returning to the herd.

Again, there is potential for abuse and it does occur, although stringent rules have cut heavily into the number of violations. Under the rules, if show management or judges observe any form of abuse, they may banish the violator from further competition at that show. Inhumane treatment, the rule book states, involves exhibiting a horse which is crippled or injured or a horse with any form of health abnormality that could cause it undue discomfort or stress.

Abuse is defined as excessive jerking, spurring, whipping, slapping, or any other act intended to cause trauma or injury. Any act of abuse, or intent to abuse a horse, in the show arena or on the show grounds, can bring forth penalties.

Administration of drugs on the show grounds is prohibited unless administered in a life-saving situation. And when that is the case, it must be reported to show management. Violation of the rules can bring a $500 fine or a minimum of 90 days suspension, or probation, or both.

Walking Horses

A breed almost synonymous with show ring abuse some years ago was the Tennessee Walking Horse. That is not the case today. Back then, some unscrupulous trainers did about everything from applying extremely heavy shoes to deliberately soring horses with devices or caustic substances in an effort to further exaggerate an already exaggerated gait.

The hue and cry against such abuse hit a crescendo in 1970, when the Horse Protection Act was passed by U.S. Congress. Although preventing the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses was the focus of the act, it was not limited to them. All horses are included.

Enforcement of rules rests with veterinarians employed by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Horses showing an animated gait, such as the five-gaited Saddlebred horse, Fox Trotters, and racking horses can be inspected by government-approved veterinarians.

An amendment to the Horse Protection Act in 1976 provided for industry self-regulation via the Designated Qualified Persons (DQP) program. What this means is that show management can make arrangements for DQPs (qualified large animal veterinarians) to be on the show grounds to make the inspections.

The Watchdog

We turn now to US Equestrian, the protective watchdog and umbrella organization for 26 breeds and disciplines. The organization is not new--it came into being on Jan. 20, 1917, when representatives of 50 horse shows met in New York City under the leadership of Reginald C. Vanderbilt.

The fledgling organization dubbed itself the Association of American Horse Shows, and its first annual meeting was held Jan. 29, 1918. By then, 29 well-known horse shows had been elected to membership. By the 1924 annual meeting, the association had expanded to include 67 shows.

In 1933, the name was changed to American Horse Shows Association and remained that until 2001, when it became USA Equestrian. Today it's known as US Equestrian, and in addition to its 26 breeds and disciplines, it has more than 80,000 individual members and more than 2,700 member competitions. In its more than 80 years of existence, the organization's rule book (online at www.equestrian.org/submenu/rules.aspx) has become the definitive guide to equestrian competition, ranging from weekend shows to the Olympics.

As the umbrella organization, it promulgates general rules and regulations for members, but also incorporates specific rules that apply to one member group, such as those of the American Morgan Association forbidding the use of certain training devices on the show grounds. Such a rule wouldn't be applicable for eventing horses, for example, so is confined to a section of the rule book for Morgans only.

As mentioned earlier, US Equestrian has a working relationship with other registries and associations for drug testing. The cornerstone of this effort is the sophisticated drug testing laboratory in Ithaca, N.Y., just off the campus of Cornell University. The testing lab began operating in 1995. Prior to that, US Equestrian had farmed out the testing of samples to private laboratories.

There are thousands of substances prohibited under US Equestrian rules. Therefore, the demand for drug testing services has continued to grow, says John Lengel, DVM, administrator of US Equestrian's Drugs and Medications Program headquartered in Hilliard, Ohio. When the testing lab opened in 1995, Lengel says, it performed 40 ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) tests, and by 1996, the first full year of the laboratory's existence, analyzed slightly more than 6,000 blood and urine samples in that year.

By 2002, the number of samples tested annually had risen to 9,000. The lab now performs some 90 kinds of ELISA tests. That increase, plus implementation of the split sample rule (where two samples are taken from each horse), stretched the laboratory's capacity to its limit. The original laboratory had 3,000 square feet of space, but a new addition added another 2,000 square feet in 2003.

The effectiveness of the US Equestrian Laboratory was, in a way, demonstrated in a report that was issued by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) at a meeting in August of 2001. It listed the accomplishments of 19 other major equine drug testing laboratories in the United States that perform drug testing for 30 racing jurisdictions, as well as the US Equestrian laboratory. The NTRA report stated that during the period covered by the report (1997-1999), the 19 other major equine drug testing labs confirmed 385 positives for forbidden substances in a combined total of 509,000 equine blood and urine samples tested.

In comparison, during the six-year period from 1995-2000, US Equestrian's lab confirmed 334 positives for forbidden substances in a total of 46,000 equine blood and urine samples tested.

Show Horse Abuse Today

After all of the aforementioned, we are left with a question and a positive answer.

Question: Are some show horses still being abused with drugs and inhumane treatment by owners and trainers?

Answer: Yes they are, and likely will continue to be. The good news is that the vast majority of owners--and nearly all of the breed and discipline registries and associations--are becoming more and more pro-active in detecting abuse and punishing the perpetrators.

If you have questions regarding the rules and regulations of a particular event or discipline, ask the organizing body or the breed association under which the show is being held. If you have information about abuse of any horse, contact your local police, as well as the breed or discipline organization under which that person competes.

Abuse in competition horses is not a thing of the past, nor is it as rampant as it was. But to keep the trend going in the right direction, every legitimate competitor and horse owner must be willing to take a stand and help horses be the athletes they were meant to be, without the risk of injury brought on by unscrupulous owners or trainers.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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