For those of you who have not yet seen, a very high profile hunter trainer and rider duo have been slapped with some pretty stiff penalties after one of their horses tested positive for GABA last summer. I was able to talk to a few people who have exposure at that level of the sport- with the gazillionaires and the circuit riders and the ones who go out there and win every time at the highest levels- and get some perspectives.
Note: other people have extensively discussed the effect doping has on the horse’s health and safety. This will focus more on this issue from a governance/competition standpoint.
- These penalties, while a decent first step, are not likely to materially change anything. It will not affect their ability to do business, because people will still train with them and buy horses from them. Do you think Paul Valliere is suffering right now due to his lifelong ban? He still has a thriving training business. The only way to truly make an impact that hurts at this level is to impact their business.
- The outrage from the people at our level (in this context, I mean the people who compete regularly at rated shows, but maybe not at the circuit/BNT level) straight up doesn’t matter to these people. It does not shame them or register as a concern- we are not their target market. The only way to influence them in this way would be if other trainers/riders at the top levels publicly spoke out and denied them their business. Those are the people that matter in their world.
- Along these lines, we need to consider the social aspect as well as the monetary. $24k is a drop in the bucket at those levels. But losing status or standing with their peers? That would hurt. How could a governing body enforce something like that? In my own opinion, we would need a culture shift for this, not a rule change.
- It isn’t just the pros that drug their horses. Example: say you want your 12yo daughter Muffy to go in the 1.10m jumpers this year. And you want her to go win, because your friend’s daughter seems to be winning and you need to be able to chat about that over lunch. Muffy probably doesn’t have the training or strength to jump a clear round at 1.10m, but why should that matter- you simply have your trainer pay six figures for a 1.40m jumper and put in lots of training rides. Muffy isn’t allowed to ride the horse outside of the show ring, because that would undo all the training your trainer has done. So when Muffy goes in the show ring, we need to give our 1.40m something to take the edge off so that Muffy can hold on and steer over her 1.10m course. Lo and behold, Muffy goes clear and wins the class! Clearly the decision to over-horse your child and then drug it down paid off.
These are just a few rambling thoughts interspersed liberally with (hopefully accurate) paraphrases from people much more experienced and knowledgeable than myself. My own thoughts are this: on top of being a safety hazard, drugging horses in order to win is an insult to the people who spend day-in-day-out working to develop their horses. It’s not fair to the horses, and it isn’t fair to other competitors who are putting in the time and effort to progress.
I know that my wonderful readers come from all different parts of the spectrum: different disciplines, different involvement in showing, etc. I’d love to hear your perspectives on this!