Thursday, August 13, 2015

Deadhead Hunters - an impossible standard

There has been a lot of chatter around our barn this week about the USEF announcement that uber-hunter Inclusive tested positive for GABA, or Carolina Gold at last year's Derby Finals.

I am no expert on GABA, but it's a substance I associate more with the racing industry than the Hunters, but apparently it gets plenty of press in the H/J world too.
the buffet is open...
While I have plenty of commentary surrounding any sort of "prep" for horses in any discipline, that's not where my frustration immediately went with this announcement. 

Of course my concern for a horse's wellbeing trumps all - but I'm legitimately intrigued by the thought that Inclusive, who is arguably a standard bearer for what it means to be a top hunter, lays down his top trips with the additional support of a calming agent.

I'm certain that even totally sober, a horse like Inclusive would still sweep most competition aside - but as an Ammy who is still a tad baffled by the Hunters, I find it disappointing and discouraging to see our celebrated leaders in the sport brought down by a positive drug test.

It's an unfortunate blemish on the (amazingly impressive) record for the horse, especially with his prodigious rider Ms. Tori Colvin - but that just frustrates me all the more. 

I'd like to think that they don't rely on such substances and this positive test isn't indicative of the hard work and flawless rounds they have earned together.  If that's the case, I do feel badly for Inclusive, and also Tori - who is clearly an effective and remarkable rider.

Of course, there are other explanations, and I'm not sure it's any better...

Did they always need a little extra something in order to get their top finishes?

If so, how tragic.

How upsetting that our top junior rider and a top mount still need something extra.  How unbelievably crappy that our judging standard has encouraged such behavior.

Tori's mom, Brigid Colvin is one of the trainers listed for Inclusive and received a hefty fine and suspension in association with the positive test.  COTH has her on the record with a very predictable comment essentially saying that she had no idea and nothing to do with it. 

This is where my circle of horsey people are divided.  If she *truly* didn't know (or if the owner didn't know, or the rider didn't know, or whoever...) should they still be punished?

I feel INCREDIBLY strongly that yes, yes you should.  It's your team, your barn, your staff.  You are responsible for making sure your horses are ready and safe for competition within the rules. Ultimately I think owners are responsible, but in a competition setting where the Trainers are captains of the proverbial ship and in charge of running the barn-away-from-home, you better believe they get held responsible even if there was some sketchy dude in the shadows who was out there injecting horses with god knows what without permission.

It reminds me a bit of high school sports practice.  If you want mutual accountability you don't make the one kid who's late run extra sprints, you make the team run sprints and make sure they help each other stay on time.  (or for the ultimate impact, the late kid sits out and watches their team run sprints.  guilt is a fairly effective motivator...)

I don't know what the answer is for improving the culture of "prepping" horses for the show ring.  But I know it requires the Top Horses who are laying down trips in the 90's (and the rare 100), being TOTALLY SOBER when they do it. 

Right now we have a culture of "prepping" mediocre horses in order to get a performance out of them that resembles something closer to what a horse like Inclusive might be capable of. 

But when the Inclusives of our sport are testing positive, not only are we chasing impossible standards, we are setting a dangerous bar if those perfect trips aren't possible with a clean and sober horse.

I have my moments where I doubt the current sport I've chosen, and this is certainly one of them.  When I'm loving the Hunters, I see it as something more akin to Dressage with jumps thrown in.  I find my riding is similar, managing balance, softness, connection, impulsion and elasticity... all the same building blocks of a good dressage test are what it takes for the 'effortless' look over fences. 

However, on my bad days it feels like the sport just encourages our poor trainers to do whatever they have to so that they can strap a crappy ammy or kid to the back of the horse and they can stay on for 8 jumps in a predictable enough pattern that they need not even steer. (face palm).

In theory the standard of judging for a show Hunter is based on what would have been safe and pleasant ride for a traditional field hunter.  But I can tell you right now I'd take a seasoned Event horse on a foxhunt about a million times before I grabbed a "seasoned" show Hunter for the same job. 

We've dumbed down the Hunter discipline so much that not only does it fail to reflect the actual job it's supposed to aspire to - horses in their right mind won't succeed.  I'd wager that wild eyed OTTB who started stamping the moment you pulled out her XC tack is a hell of a lot safer in an open field, with uneven ground and solid obstacles than the over-lunged fat, warmblood with earplugs in who can't feel it's feet and has a hard time balancing on the "downhill" side of the barely graded arena. 

UGH.  so disappointing all the way around.

Turns out four months of stall rest doesn't just make for a grumpy horse, it also makes a rider somewhat testy....  oops.


  1. To me, the news is predictable, and sad. Perhaps more sad because it's so predictable. I was in another barn that was mentioned in COTH's article and opted not to publish the publicity piece I was planning, because the horses in their aisle were lifeless and dead in the eyes in their stalls (I can't say for sure if they were drugged or just exhausted), tied down with gadgets in schooling, and generally miserable. So again, sad, but not surprised. When an animal performs like a machine, every round, every show, every time, it raises my eyebrows. And not in a good way.

    1. So True. I guess I'm not really "surprised" when top barns are the issue... I just hate seeing one of the superstars of the sport testing positive. I wouldn't be surprised to see the top A/O and High performance horses in our zone test positive... But I guess I wanted to think that the high visibility stars were playing by the rules. sad face

      also - dead in the eye barn aisles make me depressed.

  2. This was EXCELLENT and one of the best pieces I've ever read on the subject. It's akin to impossible beauty standards set forth by the fashion industry - there's no way the average human can look like that without doing themselves some serious harm, or undergoing serious surgery. It's extremely disappointing that such a talented rider/trainer team felt that having 'a little something extra' was necessary. If a perfect trip on a sober horse isn't even possible, what are we, as riders, chasing?

    1. Great point.
      I've always jokingly refer to the Hunters as a beauty pageant, but really, the metaphor works... and it's like we all just found out Gisele has lipo every 3 months to keep her figure on point, so why am I working out?

  3. THIS. **massive applause**
    Excellent, excellent post!

  4. This is the main reason why I quit doing the hunters. I just can't support a sport that I believe is doing things so astronomically wrong. Having been around the grooming stalls and sharps boxes at A shows, almost all of the hunter barns are using some kind of liquid prep. And if they aren't doing that, they're lunging forever. If that's what it takes to prepare the horses to "succeed", there is something majorly wrong with the sport itself. Somewhere along the way we lost the entire point and turned it into a dog show.

  5. So hard. Such a tough discipline with tough standards and tough answers. I'm not at all surprised about Inclusive, for various reasons that I won't write on the internet but would be happy to tell you over a cocktail or two. I knew that I'd never be able to lay down a "perfect" hunter trip with Simon being his sober Simon self, so I switched to jumpers (amongst other reasons).

  6. Quiet horses are out there, people should stop trying to put square pegs in round holes. My horse needs to be grained up at shows because he's just lazy. Also I don't see anything wrong with a hunter horse being more lively, Show us a spark.

  7. I read through that whole thread (yesterday, probably twice as long today). It's weird to me. I've only nominally been around hunters though I'm certainly familiar with the reputation. I agree with the points you put forward. Further, the USEF enforcement protocol is just wonky. I mean, maybe it's fine, but the public face actually is so weird that it makes me glad I'm not able to show on a more comprehensive basis right now.

  8. "How unbelievably crappy that our judging standard has encouraged such behavior."


    The standard is being set for these "dead quite" horses when in realilty that isn't how horses are 24/7 most of the time.

    This isn't how hunters have always been judged, like you said it's supposed to be a horse who could go out in the hunt field!

    You can have a nice round with the horses allowed to be themselves a little.

    Glad you wrote about this!

  9. Preach it, girl. I was so happy when judges were recently encouraged to reward, or at least not fault, a horse who looked like a living thinking being on course. A good hunter who clearly loves and understands the game of his sport is an amazing thing to see. I'm not sure that's actually the goal sometimes...

  10. I watched this: and OK I have the benefit of hindsight (although I also have the benefit of outside eyes as we don't have H/J in Australia) and I was not in the least surprised to hear he has returned a positive test. The horse in that video is DEAD to the world. Watch from 1.40-1.55: the rider is very good at disguising it and she must have incredible core muscles but she is hauling on that horse's mouth and he doesn't even react. A normal horse would at least open it's mouth. He's just completely zoned out and lolloping along.

  11. It's an interesting thing, horse competition. Each discipline has its own merits and faults. Not raised in Hunterland it feels very much the she who has the most expensive pony wins game that I always thought it was. Yes cheaper horses can play, my mare can look pretty spectacular when she hits her mark, but it seems like no merit is given for getting the more difficult or undesirable horse to get close to that perfect Hunter round. That said I like the steadiness of the courses, so of the jumper rounds I've watched are entertaining but appalling.

  12. Very insightful post, especially since I've never really been in Hunterland. I do find it sick/sad when we humans hold animals to an ideal that is neither possible nor a reflection of that animal's nature. I feel like it happens in all disciplines, which is even worse. Why can't we be happy with what makes a horse a horse?

  13. This post was incredibly well written and hit some really salient points. I feel like many disciplines have passed the mark of quality into some gross distortion of what the ideal began as. You can take almost any discipline and apply it. Peanut roller Western pleasure, Arabian halter extreme dish face, Half Dead Hunters, HYPP QHs, Skeleton Endurance horses, etc. The list goes on and on.

    I always loved the hunters as I understood them. Granted, I have never been anywhere close to an A level show barn or shown anywhere near that level. I would love to see it go back to the more forward-strided, open courses of the 60's and 70's. I wonder what it would take, if it is even possible, for the pendulum to swing back to a more moderate place. I don't know if it is possible.

  14. Yeah. There are a few things my mind always comes to when drugging discussions come up:
    1. If you care about the sport enough to spend your life and/or money in it, you should care about the rules. The rules say don't drug.
    2. A real horsewoman would never hurt her horse to win. Ever. Ever. Ever.
    3. I still don't get why everyone needs a warmblood because no one can ride a thoroughbred--if warmbloods are so lovely and amateur-friendly, why the Carolina Gold and Perfect Prep and endless lunging? Someone explain this to me please.

    I mean, I bet in the case of this horse, it's that every horse in the barn is getting the same stuff. That's how a lot of those big hunter barns work. Give it to one, give it to all. It's gross. The couple of times Don Stewart has been busted, it's been EVERY horse in the barn.


Related Posts with Thumbnails