One Ammy’s Rambling Thoughts on the Business of Doping

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.



Enjoy this unrelated pic of me tryin’ to look cool and Francis tryin’ to sneak a bite of grass.



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!

12 thoughts on “One Ammy’s Rambling Thoughts on the Business of Doping

  1. Karen M 01/12/2017 / 10:47 am

    It’s all terrible, but that last scenario you describe is especially cringe-worthy to me on so many levels.


  2. Britt 01/12/2017 / 10:51 am

    I’m glad they are cracking down on a well known pair (even I know who that rider is!) but agree, it’s a cultural shift that needs to be made.


  3. T. A. Eyo ¥ 01/12/2017 / 11:01 am

    The hunter ring has this weird habit where we bring up drugging twice a year and then do next to nothing about it. That culture shit ain’t happening any time soon.


  4. L. Williams 01/12/2017 / 11:24 am

    I’ve been saying it for years, if they really want to stop it all those involved with the horse that test positive should be suspended. The Rider, The Trainer, The Handler The Horse, The Owner. The fines need to be heavier, more than returning the entries. The horse should be stripped of all prizes and points for the year. Suspensions need to happen in real time, as soon as results come back. I don’t even care if its at mid show.

    But the conflict of interest are high in this sport so it probably won’t happen but I hope it does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amanda C 01/12/2017 / 1:52 pm

      I agree – the horse needs to be suspended as well. As it stands, they’ll just have the assistant keep riding and showing the horses, and it will, as you said, affect them ZERO. Start setting the horses down too and it will affect the pocketbooks a hell of a lot more.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Allison Stitzinger 01/12/2017 / 11:27 am

    It IS insulting, and infuriating, for those of us who ‘do it right’ with hard work and hours of training to be beaten by people using drugs as a shortcut. I also agree that the fines and suspensions likely won’t be enough to change anything until the judges start rewarding something different.


  6. Megan 01/12/2017 / 4:05 pm

    I love your last bullet point. It’s behavior analysis- what is reinforcing the behavior? What is failing to punish the behavior? They either need to dismantle the reinforcer (like to stop rewarding drugged horses) or make the punisher outweigh the reinforcers (like a punishment that effects their business, which is hard, like you said). I agree with you that not a lot of these pros care what the lower level folks think- they value winning (which is often linked to maintaining their business) over the horses, and if they have those sorts of ethics, then making an ethical argument against doping won’t change their mind.


  7. laurelashtonw 01/12/2017 / 6:55 pm

    I completely agree with all of this! I think that people need to take the time to properly train horses and riders. Having competed at high caliber shows in the past, and worked for a show barn, there is a ton of pressure to get horses going at all costs. But this is not realistic!! It takes time to really train a horse, and get it used to horse shows. It also takes time to get the rider capable of showing at a high level. Riding a sedated horse does not teach how to ride, or deal with issues.

    I love that social media is bringing this issue to light. Back when I was very competitive, I had no idea that so many people dope horses. I have no idea if my horse was ever doped, to be honest. I do not think he was, but I cannot say for certain. It wasn’t until I worked for a show barn that I found out how many people use drugs in the hunter ring.

    I think there should be heavier consequences, and I think that judging in the hunter ring needs to change. Hunters are held to completely unrealistic standards!! We shouldn’t get docked because our horse acts like a horse and shakes it’s head after a big oxer!


  8. Heather 01/12/2017 / 9:05 pm

    Well said, as usual. I think the Hunter Derbies kind of had a good concept when they started, where silly behavior wasn’t penalized like it is in normal hunter classes, and a buck or exuberant lead change were seen more as a horse enjoying its job than anything. But then that kind of disappeared, and a lot of derbies are super dumbed down. And then the same cycle continues. There are certainly a lot of parents and juniors/ammys who may not even be aware of the fact that their horse is regularly drugged for their classes, especially at that level, when a lot of people just show up and hop on. That doesn’t excuse their ignorance, but it’s one of so many factors to consider when trying to pinpoint what kind of change actually works.

    To be honest, I think there’s a whole lot of things that have led to a culture where winning at any cost is the priority. I think a great start would be just planning to test anyone with a top 6 placing in randomly selected classes. It would be hard to do that for every class, but if there was a strong chance you’d be tested just for winning, it might be a better deterrent.


  9. Centered in the Saddle 01/16/2017 / 10:58 am

    This is a large part of why I never loved doing the hunters, and why I am SO glad to be out of it. Not that I was even close to the level of the people you’re talking about (local circuit FTW!) but even at the (very, very) low levels, the politics of everything and the way judges reward certain riders/horses just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


  10. Tracy - Fly On Over 01/18/2017 / 7:28 am

    I agree that a culture shift is what’s needed… but how do you go about that? That’s the challenge here. And while I don’t think people like Kelly Farmer give a shit about my opinion, I still think it’s important to speak out.


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