Of Sunshine, False Fairytales And Calming

Sep 8, 2015 - 3:39 PM

They say sunlight’s the best disinfectant, and the hunter/jumper world got hit by a big old ray of light last week.

First, news of Devin Ryan’s dismissal from the Hampton Classic broke. Hampton Classic officials were prompt and thorough in responding to a request for a statement, and one of the stewards involved in the incident agreed to an interview to help explain the chain of events that led to abuse charges being filed with the U.S. Equestrian Federation against Ryan.

These are the kinds of incidents that many times go un-reported upon until an official USEF announcement of a hearing decision. But because the show responded quickly to a request for information, and a USEF steward spoke frankly and factually about the process, Chronicle readers were able to know about a part of the process that in the past, only eyewitnesses would have been privy to.

Of course, Ryan’s case will go to a full USEF hearing process and he deserves to be able to defend himself against the stewards’ charges. But because of the way the officials handled the proceedings, the public is aware of what events led to that hearing, which is unusual.  

And then, in the process of Brigid Colvin filing a civil suit against the USEF—arguing that she shouldn’t have been considered the trainer on record of Inclusive on the day of his positive GABA test—the official transcript of her USEF hearing for Inclusive’s case became part of public record, since it was filed as evidence in the civil suit.

The contents of the hearing transcript are eye-opening, especially if you don’t realize just how pervasive the culture of “quieting” has become in the hunter world. Colvin and Steve Rivetts’ testimony—whether or not the details of how much of a certain substance and when are true—reveal a casual acceptance of taking extreme measures to “calm” a horse and still remain in line with the USEF’s letter of the law.

(For more on this, make sure to read the article “The Cult Of Calm” in the upcoming Sept. 14 special Horse Care Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.)

Keep in mind, no one in Inclusive’s case argues that Inclusive wasn’t given GABA or that is was inadvertently introduced to his system in a seemingly innocuous supplement—they’re just arguing about who actually administered it, pointing fingers back and forth.

Inclusive’s case hits home particularly keenly for many hunter fans because the story that’s been woven by the people around him—and perpetuated by the press, including the Chronicle—is a fairytale of a talented junior rider of few means bringing out the best in a somewhat quirky horse with the help of wise professionals guiding her and a benevolent and supportive owner.

That’s what reporters and fans have been told in many, many interviews after Inclusive’s numerous wins.

But the story painted by Colvin’s hearing transcript is one of an “awkward, hostile” environment between Colvin and owner Betsee Parker and her trainer, Steve Rivetts. It’s one in which Inclusive is routinely given multiple tubes of paste calmers as well as being lunged in his standard pre-show preparation. And one in which Carolina Gold is injected into horses as a matter of course, by exercise riders and grooms.

It’s the antithesis of the fairytale. As one poster on the Chronicle bulletin boards said, “If this country’s (arguably) best combination of bankroll, trainers, horseflesh, and rider talent still feels the need to drug, then what the devil are the rest of us doing here? It essentially proves that the current hunter ideal is, in fact, unachievable.”

Even if the details of medicating that Colvin and Rivetts describe in their testimony aren’t 100 percent accurate, it’s clear that in the environment in which Inclusive showed was one of casual acceptance and minimally informed usage of large quantities of pre-show medication. And that kind of environment is possibly one where horse welfare can be at risk.

As another Chronicle forums poster said, “Everyone from owner to rider is involved and not one thing was mentioned about the well-being of the horses. Even those who claimed to have no idea what GABA was or what was being given to the horses seemed to have no concern if it was dangerous, the possible side effects, just how it was going to affect them. It’s sad and it very much does give off the tone that this a very common practice. Maybe more so than we like to believe.”

Without Colvin filing her civil suit and the transcript becoming public record, the hearing committee would have been the only ones who heard the extent of the “preparation” culture surrounding Inclusive. Hunter fans and those not connected with the horse would have taken the face value of the USEF hearing committee’s original decision, probably chalked it up to an isolated incident or mistake, thought, “Oh, what a shame,” and gone on. 

But now, this world of injections and pastes and compromised jugular veins is on display for all to see. And maybe that’s a good thing. The USEF has struggled mightily to control this epidemic of “calming” with testing and administrative penalties, but keeping the details of the hearing processes and cases out of sight unless the respondents chose to defend themselves publically in the media. Maybe a healthy dose of sunshine can help stem the calming tide.

What if the details of every violation and the transcripts of the hearing process were made public record immediately? If nothing else, the horse show public would have a lot more information to use when deciding where to take their business and spend their money. 

Because that’s the far-reaching effect of news like this—the average joe horse show participant is disgusted, discouraged and disenfranchised. We want the stars of our sport to inspire us to push ourselves, not show the way with tube after tube or injection after injection of calmers. Of course, not every horseman resorts to such measures, but when high-profile cases like this occur and we see behind the curtain into the standard “preparation” of one instance, it’s hard to believe there’s a truly level playing field.

In the words of a Chronicle forum poster, “What’s sad for these kids is that it’s likely this is the way it’s always been done in their lives. There’s a damn good chance that they don’t even know there’s another way. It’s as normal as sliced bread to them. The rest of it just disgusts me. I had a really hard time ponying up and going to work for this industry today.”

I felt the same way, because I like writing about fairytales. And it’s really hard to swallow when you realize there’s a chance the fairytale was false.

Every now and then we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We’re just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. Associate Editor Molly Sorge has evented herself and groomed at Rolex Kentucky and Burghley CCI****s as well as spending a few years grooming on the A-rated hunter/jumper circuit before settling in at the Chronicle

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