I was recently told that I needed to be careful what I post since I am a public figure. I would like you to know that this post may make you angry, and we may disagree on this topic. I am 100 percent OK with that.
For those of you who disagree, either ignore me or help me understand why I am wrong. For those of you who agree with me, please help our sport by sharing this post. We can use the Fabergé Organics model: I’ll tell two friends, and you tell two friends and so on and so on.
This morning I got up early to leave Lexington, [Ky.], where I have been attending the [U.S. Equestrian Federation] Annual Meeting. As I sat in the airport, I was joined by two fellow USEF directors. The talk turned quickly to the shocking statistic that was presented in Murray Kessler’s Strategic Plan.
That statistic? That almost 60 percent of all doping violations are in the hunter sport. The two directors (an active athlete from dressage and another from Morgan) expressed horror at our transgressions. The dressage athlete told the two of us that people in dressage are embarrassed to be part of a doping violation. She asked why we were not.
Her question rang true with me. Why aren’t we embarrassed? Have we lost our love for horses? Do we love money more than our honor? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that this lack of integrity is both a sickness of people’s souls and our sport. And unfortunately, those of us who DO have integrity are being tarred with the same brush.
Dressage has certainly had its scandals. At her prompting, we discussed rollkur, the blood rule and overly tight nosebands, and she spoke about the change in the attitude towards these areas of her sport. When asked how her sport changed their dynamic she said that a few things happened:
- Public awareness grew
- Judges stopped rewarding horses using the techniques
- Stewards got tough in the schooling areas
Can we perform a similar sport surgery on our side? Well, for me, the answer is an unequivocal YES. But let’s talk about some of the problems that we face:
1) The trainer/student relationship. There are trainers who look me in the eye and say, “What we expect from these horses is not natural. Horses need help to stay quiet enough to perform their job, and sometimes its kinder to them to give them some help with that.”
I say that this is an unmitigated load of horse manure. I make my living in the horse world training juniors and amateurs. It is my responsibility to teach my students how to ride.
To do this, I must:
- Be straightforward and honest about their strengths and weaknesses
- Help them to develop a goal and a plan to reach that goal
- Be willing to say no even if it means losing the customer
- Choose appropriate horses
- Create a realistic competition plan
My students must be willing to understand that a horse is a living, breathing creature—not a piece of sports equipment. Clients must understand that success in our sport takes time, dedication and grit.
I have helped people with horses that came from barns where the horse was chemically “helped” both for lessons and competitions. I have found that the horses have to go through a detox period, and the riders have to actually learn to ride. It is not a pleasant process. The owner/rider needs to accept either their culpability or their gullibility. Again, not a fun moment for any concerned.
I must commit to educating myself to the highest level, being honest about my strengths and weaknesses and be willing to stretch and grow on a professional level. As a professional, I should understand when to pass a student either down or up to a different professional who can help that person. Doing that can be hard. We are all struggling to make ends meet, and turning a client away can be so difficult.
2) As a judge, I must be willing to accept a certain amount of expression from a horse. Many, many people blame judges for the problems of the hunter sport. I am 50/50 on this topic. There is a huge difference between these two situations:
- The horse who jumps a beautiful jump, lands and shows expression on the other side. For me, expression could be between a head shake and a mini dolphin moment. The horse is exhibiting joy in the sheer physicality of what he has done.
- The horse whose rider misses the distance, causing the horse to jump from an awkward distance. This horse lands, scoots, bucks or wrings its tail in displeasure from the awkwardness of its physical effort.
For me, the first situation should not be penalized, and the second should. Of course, there are other factors at work—the type of class, the weather and so on. I believe that many licensed officials absolutely do the right thing in these situations.
Judges are at the mercy of the trainers and exhibitors. There are some trainers that ask for a judge not to be re-hired. I can think of an instance where I was not re-hired because of trainer pressure. Perhaps I am not a good judge. If so, I would appreciate the chance to work on professional development.
On the other hand, if I was not re-hired due to political pressure, that sits squarely on the shoulders of my fellow trainers. As a sport, we may have taken out our gun and blown off some of our toes.
3) Stewards as a whole are a good group of people who are often placed in an awkward position. They are supposed to be there for the welfare of the horse and to be the go-between for exhibitors and management. They count on competition management to hire them. If they anger either trainers or management they may not be re-hired.
There are moments that we, as trainers or managers, put them in an untenable position. And there are times that they are afraid to speak their mind because they are frightened that their sport federation will not back them up. And then what do we hear? The sound of silence. Their silence is not fair to our horses.
Murray has promised all of us a transparent and equitable USEF. But neither Murray nor USEF can do this on their own—we have to do our part. This is OUR sport, and it is up to all of us to make good choices, to remember why we started to ride and to be honest with ourselves and our customers.
Can we do this? I believe the answer is yes, and the time is now. Next year when I sit in the Lexington airport, I want to be able to hold my head high and feel proud of my sport. Will you join with me?
I look forward to being part of a change for the positive.
Mary Babick is the current President of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association. A professional horsewoman for more than 35 years, she has trained many hunter, jumper and equitation winners as well as serving as a USEF judge and as a member of the USHJA Board of Directors.