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Are We Doing Right By Our Horses?

Are We Doing Right By Our Horses?

Sally Spickard

Our sport is nothing without the horses.

It’s a difficult position to be in, a member of the equestrian media. We’re a small group, and we love to support the riders whom we’ve grown to care about over the years. It’s even more difficult when it feels as if it’s taboo to ask something outside of the normal “How was your ride today?” questions that pepper a typical press conference.

But I do, however, feel it’s appropriate to question things. After all, we live in a world where literally everything is under a social media microscope. It presents an entirely new layer of accountability, of transparency – and it’s still rocky ground as we learn how to navigate it professionally.

As it stands, now that I’ve had a moment to recover from Kentucky and gather my thoughts, I have a few questions:

Why are we, as members of the equestrian media, not asking tougher questions? I don’t exclude myself from that sentiment – I, too, have sat in numerous press conferences with a tough question on the tip of my tongue, and I bit it back. But why is that?
Why are we, as members of the equestrian public, not demanding a higher level of transparency from both the governing bodies and organizations as well as the riders?
How to do we continue to hold ourselves to a high standard regarding horse safety and welfare, without encouraging bullying and mob mentality?

How do we quantify offenses – and write the corresponding rules – when so much of our sport is built on subjectivity and opinion?

Accountability rides on the backs of more than just the riders. The proposed wording modification to the existing blood rule within the FEI Eventing Rules is a minor improvement, however it still leaves a glaring gray area on subjectivity, scale of severity and repeated offenses. How is this the best we can do by our horses?

Regardless of the circumstances, the number of photographs circulating of Marilyn Little on multiple horses, at multiple events, with blood in the mouth do not lie. Do horses bite their lips? Yes. Do photos only capture a moment in time? Yes. Are there other riders who have had a bloody mouth or body part or a too-tight noseband? Yes. Should all of these instances be thoroughly investigated, not only on a case-by-case basis but as an overall pattern as well? Yes! Case-by-case is all well and good until you examine a track record. Where is the strike rule when it comes to blood on horses? Why are we not finding a better way to quantify and identify repeat offenses that warrant a more serious investigation?

The fact that this is not an existing policy, from the perspective of horse welfare, is baffling to me. If a rider consistently shows up with blood, the investigation needs to go farther than the warm-up or the vet box, end of story. The issuance of a general statement about the importance of horse care is not sufficient. While I do feel proper protocol was followed for this particular instance, I do not feel that the buck should stop there. But for all intents and purpose, it appears to have once again.

Is blood from a bitten lip necessarily indicative of abuse? Absolutely not. Why is it so offensive to think that a thorough investigation should be no issue if that’s the case? 

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Look, I get it. I highly doubt that the vast majority of riders truly want to harm their horses, or want anything but the best for them. I do not doubt the level of care that Marilyn’s horses receive. What bothers me more is what can only be publicly perceived as complete ignorance of a clear pattern. This is where we are failing our horses, regardless of whether or not they are chronic lip-biters. Is blood from a bitten lip necessarily indicative of abuse? Absolutely not. Why is it so offensive to think that a thorough investigation should be no issue if that’s the case? 

In an environment where much of the rule enforcement is based on subjectivity, it’s difficult to quantify offenses. This is where personal accountability and integrity must be elevated. A rider who is publicly beloved and supported should not be exempt from criticism. Yes, I do realize I am far from an upper-level rider or a certified official, however, my point is that there is a palpable sense of public and official favoritism happening within equestrian sport, which allows some behaviors to be swept under the rug, often repeatedly.

But asking those tough questions, the questions that hold riders in a position of power accountable even though they often elicit a curt “no comment”, doesn’t immediately signal a witch hunt – or it shouldn’t, at least. But if we continue to glaze politely over the gray areas, will we ever elicit a true change?

This is what destroys the integrity of equestrian sport and what will cause us to lose our Olympic status if we don’t change. I am calling for a higher level of integrity from all parties involved – the media, including myself, the governing bodies, the sponsors, the fans – in addition to the riders and their teams.

I am calling for this to apply to all horses and their riders, rather than a select few. When repeated instances occur, don’t stop at the vet box. Why should a more stringent investigation be shunned, particularly if there is nothing to hide? I’m not endorsing a fine-toothed comb over every photograph or video reel, but perhaps a more discerning eye that doesn’t pay mind to favor would go a long way for the overall improvement of our sport.

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