As someone who works in the horse industry and loves horses and showing, I want to preface this post by saying that there are a lot of incredible people in this industry who adore their horses and want what is best for them. That is a no brainer. There are many exceptional trainers who have a moral compass, no matter how famous they become or what level they ascend to in the competition world. This article is not claiming that all of the horse world is tarnished by bad eggs. Its purpose is to expose the reality that there are disturbing and unacceptable things go on behind the scenes, things that should not be tacitly accepted or allowed to continue. Unfortunately for some, success may bring out the worst side of them because money, fame and attention can be tantalizingly attractive. We see this same influence outside of the equine world in business and other industries where success is gauged by WHAT you achieve and not HOW you attain it. Not all employers give a damn about their employees, just like not all trainers give a damn about their horses. Some may view horses as disposable machines to use for business purposes, much like bad employers with their employees.
Now, no matter how much you love the show industry, we all need to be honest enough to admit that there are some shady practices going on that are often ignored or at the very least, not discussed enough. People live in fear of backlash if they out someone, even if they know the behaviour is wrong. Stewards and other officials may even, in some cases, be paid off to turn a blind eye. In addition to unacceptable practices regarding treatment of our equines, the other side of the horse world that must be addressed is our conduct as equestrians. Just as drug use is seen in society at large, riders both young and old on the show circuit reflect this serious problem. People may brush it off as though it is all fun and games and not indicative of a major issue. It is more prevalent than people often realize, with some riders starting to use drugs and alcohol at a very young age. This leads to driving under the influence in excess and especially in young people, feeling invincible to danger or being reprimanding by any authority. In addition, there is the issue of sexual assault and abuse- once again, something most are terrified to speak up about. Lastly, another issue that I want to touch on in this post is unhealthy body ideals, body shaming and the skewed body images commonly imposed on riders, most often female riders. This is no secret and is probably one of the most obvious things if you look at virtually any equestrian clothing brand or hear even the most renowned clinicians speak to their students about their appearance/equitation. This focus on weight and body image as an equestrian has been normalized, so much so that riders often turn to targeting each other. These issues are the dark side of the horse world, a side that honestly needs to be brought to light.
To tackle these taboo topics, I’ve asked for first hand accounts from riders in the horse show world, coming from a variety of different disciplines. Because these are first-hand accounts from others and I have no means to explicitly prove them, all names will be anonymous for the privacy of those who shared their story as well as the people within the stories. All of of them do need to be taken with a grain of salt since everyone’s perception of any event will differ. I will say, however, that A LOT of the same names came up. A lot of similar stories- from many, many different sources. It has been eye opening to say the least, and I hope that it is just as disturbing to you as it was to me. Let’s pretend only a fraction of the stories I received were true… Even if that were the case (though, I suspect it is far more than just a mere “fraction”), the conduct is so deplorable that it deserves to be talked about in the event there is even a shred of truth or similar practices going on. With that said, given the fact that I do not have evidence, I cannot attest to the validity of the claims made other than hearing about practices myself from a variety of other sources. I will not be representing any of this as fact, more so as what people have claimed to have observed or experienced.
People who have been shoved to the side and made to feel afraid to speak need to have a voice. They want their stories out. So, without further adieu, I share with you the darker side of the horse industry. I am sure some of you can corroborate some of these claims and, perhaps, many of you may even know who is being referenced based on the story. Read on and remember that absolutely none of these practices should be happening, even on a very small scale.
I’m going to start with some of the sketchy practices in relation to “show prepping” horses among other things, because a lot of this I can attest to either personally witnessing or am able to guess which horses have been subjected to these practices happen due to the behaviours that often follow them. Let’s start off with some of the first hand accounts pertaining to the hunter industry. Much of these were sent in by grooms or working students, however, some did come from riders competing at the same venues as these trainers. All of these stories are in relation to big names within the industry; some are about the same people.
Several years ago at Devon, I watched a big name trainer staple under the forelocks of ponies belonging to notable pony rider on the circuit in order to “make them quiet”
Yikes. Let’s talk about the lengths some are willing to go to in order to get that desired hunter lethargy or to make more reactive horses into plodders. I have been sent TONS of different messages from a number of riders across North America and all of them talk about similar tactics to helping “sedate” horses without the use of drugs, including:
intentionally removing horses’ water buckets so they cannot drink, become dehydrated and as a result are far more lethargic to ride. One person’s account of this said: “I was stabled next to a top hunter/jumper trainer once and noticed half of his horses constantly banging their buckets against the walls. It didn’t take me long to realize that he didn’t give his hunters water, in order to make them appear more calm and dead in the ring. I went to the show office and reported it, and it did not seem to be a priority for them. Some how, they survived the week. And won plenty of blue ribbons.”
Lunging horses to the point of excess, sometimes for literal hours, prior to class times in order to make them tired when the time comes to compete.
Doping horses using cocaine the night before so that they are crashing when their class time comes around the next day.
One groom’s account of drugging: “I used to have to hide needles up my sleeve in order to drug the walk /trot ponies so that her kids would win. I still feel slimy about it and regret every minute. I had to do what I did so my own horse could eat. I also held horses for the vet who were continuously nerved to the point where they would perform when they were lame and should have been retired.”
Needling the tails of hunters so that they lie flat and quiet.
Horses given illegal substances such as acepromazine prior to showing in order to sedate.
“One trainer I know puts horses out in the freezing cold with no blankets the night before a show so they shiver their energy out and are quiet the next day.”
“I found needles and other injection aids around stalls through the 2018 show season at A-rated shows.”
“My trainer worked for a well known training and sales barn down in Florida. Not only did they lie about all of their horses but they would heavily drug them and lunge them/work them before potential buyers came out. One time, there was blood from one of the needles on the horse’s neck and a potential buyer spotted it. My trainer was severely yelled at when she did not even perform the injection.”
Someone sent me a message pertaining to a big name in the hunter world and said this: “I saw her injecting dry ice into her horse’s back at a show.” Not sure what purpose this would ever serve and never have personally hear about it, but if this truly did happen, yikes. And what else would people be injecting?
Paying off stewards and other show organizers to not pull certain horses’ names for drug testing.
This message came in in relation to one of the best known hunter horses on the circuit: “Well known young professional showing well known horse in performance hunter division. The horse is visibly lame at the trot and head bobbing at the canter, but rider continues to do two hunter courses and the hack class. Wins both over fences and hack class even though horse is lame to even the untrained eye. Rider smiles and waves to judge after receiving first place ribbon in hack class.”
To finish this segment regarding drugging and other ways in which some trainers “prep” their horses, I want to share a message that I got from a trusted source whom I very much respect:
There is an extremely large (40-60 horses per show) hunter/jumper program that is “well known” for drugging horses and blatantly paying off judges/stewards. Will leave behind hundreds of needles from various drugs (ace, dex, etc) in groom stall and not dispose of them properly. Horse show was notified of large amount of needles in groom stall, sent over an Equine Canada steward to clean them up. No penalties or repercussions given to the barn. Almost every horse in the hunters coming from this barn will win champion or reserve champion in their respective divisions.
As I said in the blog post prior to this, while the trainers and riders trying to get away with such behaviour is disgusting and concerning, the fact that they are allowed to do so by authorities is even more so concerning. Barns leaving needles out in alleyways at shows a blatant lack remorse for drugging and a recognition that there will be no consequences for it. No respect for people around them either; needles left out in the open, regardless of what they contained, is incredibly dangerous. I received multiple accounts of this happening, several coming from people I know personally and whom I believe. If this is happening, I find it hard to believe these trainers are conducting themselves in such a manner without show officials either knowing or finding out. And if they do find out and ignore it, officials are telling these barns that they’re invincible- that the regulations do not apply to them.
On top of drugs, people go to other crazy lengths in an effort to “enhance” the performance of the horses they ride or, perhaps, to cover up any nagging lameness issues that may be present. I am not naming names, however, there are certain ones that came up repeatedly in reference to these practices and that is frightening. What is poling horses, you ask? It is the practice of striking a horse’s legs with a pole whilst jumping to help ensure they will go above and beyond to clear the fence. This often results in horses significantly over jumping, something that is not uncommon in young horses, but if a single barn has every single one of their horses making the effort to clear every jump to excess , you’ve got to wonder what is going on behind the scenes. Here are some stories in relation to poling and other sketchy practices:
An upper level event rider using tacked poles, sharp enough that they made grooms’ hands bleed if touched when moving them, to ensure horses pick up their legs more.
A big Canadian show jumping barn allegedly using poling as a training method for a bunch of their horses.
Multiple different upper level jumpers having someone use a bamboo pole to hit the horses’ coronet bands to make them more sensitive.
A Canadian show jumper using the training method of nailing nails into fence rails so the horses jump higher to avoid hitting them. One groom said “If you walk to his stalls at shows, you can visibly see the cuts on his horses legs.”
One rider working for a big name in Western Canada said: “Poling and rapping was pretty common (not in my barn, but with other trainers). We were strictly told we were not allowed to watch other trainers school because of the stuff they would do. Another BNT came out to school a horse at the barn and they electrified a water jump with a car battery.”
“My old barn has some amazing and expensive hunter/jumpers. We were the barn that would “prep” our horses. I was told I was just giving bute, but later, I looked at it and found it was ace. We also had our grooms lunge our horses till they were exhausted in the morning so that when people came to look at them, they would not act up and my trainer could sell them.”
“I was trying horses in Ireland and went to view an 8y/o mare. She was described as having a massive jump, a little green on the flat but nothing ridiculous. I see a groom ride her, then I ride her and she feels dead to the leg and really on the forehand, horrifically unbalanced for her age and I didn’t even want to jump her because she did not feel right. I found out a week later that the mare had been broken 3 days before I tried her and was drugged when I rode her.”
“My mom’s horse has a scar on his face from being repeatedly whipped in the face by a large horse dealer/hunter trainer in North America. She also used to tape wooden sticks to the reins so horses wouldn’t overbend and would wrap bottle caps on their front legs/coronet bands so that it would hurt more if they hit poles. If that didn’t do the trick enough, she would kick their legs where the caps were.”
“My horse was lame at a show and I was warming up in hopes he would ‘work out of it.’ He didn’t, so my trainer told me they wouldn’t be able to tell that he’s lame at a canter and to go in and pick up the canter without the trot. I didn’t do it and we found out after he had torn a ligament and needed to be on stall rest for months.”
“Stud boots being used on young horses in competition. Horses are warmed up without boots, have boots quickly put on before entering the ring and then they are quickly removed before the stewards can see them.”
Another account from someone working with one of the top horse facilities in the world that allegedly produces so many horses that they “don’t have names, but numbers around their necks.” :
I was there for a trial for a few days and they had to close off one of the arenas as they were extensively whipping a horse inside. Another experience I had was whilst working as a groom for a 1.45m show jumper, a client horse came in and was acting up, so she whipped the 5 year old to the point that lacerations were visible on its butt. I couldn’t even watch, but the trainer was not even embarrassed by her actions. She just asked me to put cold towels on the horse before the owner picked her up.
One very well-known trainer’s name came up a lot in people’s firsthand accounts of sketchy practices that disturbed them and made them question the ethicality of those at the top. Here is an account of said trainer:
He has a poling machine that he “preps” the horses with before they have big classes. The machine is like a pulley system that brings the pole up to hit the horse while they’re jumping. I also know that he will electrocute horses in order to get them to jump if they start refusing.
Another person sent this message about the same rider:
My family uses him as one of our riders. One of his horses sustained a career ending injury and subsequent euthanization. One thing the public doesn’t know is that the horse shouldn’t have been in work. He sustained an injury to the leg about 4 weeks prior to breaking down and continued to be ridden. They just had his leg injected to make him sound.
Something that is honestly fairly new to me but was brought up by numerous people, and prevalent all over North American circuit is the use of rubbing alcohol to make horses’ legs sting more if they hit rails. This is one person’s account:
In 2017, I moved away to be a working student for a well known jumper trainer at a top show barn. I remember during my first week , I and one of the other girls I worked with were tacking up a horse for the 1.20s, one that a client had just paid ~300k for. It had been “careless” and was knocking lots of rails, hence the move down from high A/O to 1.20m. I noticed the girl spraying something onto the polo wraps and I asked what it was. I still remember the way she said “you don’t want to know” but I pushed anyways and eventually she told me that spraying rubbing alcohol into polos was a trick they had picked up to sting horses when they would hit rails. The horse in question was found to have horrible ulcers 2 months later, the vet confirmed that she was basically giving 110% just to get around the courses.
The same person also said this:
Injections of I don’t want to know what were “our little secret” from the owner. Not telling the client how the horse was prepped. Not telling the client that the horse WAS prepped. Three hours on a lunge line before trial so that the horse will pass a drug test for prepurchase. Not doing night check until 3AM because everyone was out getting hammered at clubs. Lameness being hidden from owners. Bits with mouthpieces that made me sick to look at because the client didn’t have time to learn how to control the horse. Pinch boots without telling the clients that demand to know where their ribbons are. Not letting clients watch vet appointments. I want to point out that I worked for a trainer with a stellar reputation. I mean flawless. An old school, do things by the book trainer. When asking around the extensive network of horse people, I found absolutely nothing shady about her. And this is what happened. So, imagine what happens in the barns of people already known for it.
A few other people also brought up the use of rubbing alcohol as well as trainers actually physically burning the legs to make them more sensitive whilst jumping. All of the riders/trainers in question for these practices were competing at the higher levels of the sport, some of which had been on Olympic teams for countries like Canada and the US.
Another account came from a source who worked alongside an international event team, riders one would expect to practice more ethicality due to their prestige. Here are some of the concerning events noticed during this time:
“At events we were frequently told to ice horses on/off all night until they were sound and to get up at 3am jog day to do it all over again leading up to the jog.”
“I was told to ‘accidentally’ always drop a horse’s bridle in a bucket of water in the vet box because the horse used a double twisted wire gag with a drop noseband on cross country and the twist was sharpened with tape over the top points.”
“They told me my horse could go to the Olympics, but only with them riding him. When I said no and that I wanted to keep riding him even if he wouldn’t go as far, they tried to go to my parents behind my back even though they didn’t own him.”
“They made me teach my horse the ‘cluck, cluck’ game, by turning my whip up and beating him at the startbox to get him to bolt out of it ‘at speed.’ He still rears at the start box, now.”
“When I gave my one months’ notice, my boss got hammered and kicked me out of the house/barn that night at 11pm. I had to have my best friend come with his rig to pick up my horses and stuff at 6am.”
Another person working with an American 4* level eventer shared this:
We drugged horses in the beginning to make sure they wouldn’t do anything silly, we used training aids to skip steps in training. Not only was she hard to deal with as a person, she abused her horses by doing things like tying their heads down for hours to separating and isolating a horse that called out only to stress the animal more. Her horses were terrified of her and ultimately more dangerous after training. I had a mare, who was previous a kids’ horse, rear up on me because it was scared to make a mistake and be beaten. Her 4 star event horse was the spookiest horse on the property and she would beat him for spooking, causing him to be even more afraid. There was alcohol abuse where she would drink and drive with us in the car, even while pulling a trailer. If I didn’t get the correct lead on the first try, she would tell her clients I was a bad rider to make the horses look better. I finally left after she beat the same mare after galloping her on the track and jumping her a couple of times, so bad that she was bleeding, swollen and bruised. The horse looked like it was about to collapse.
The level of corruption in any industry involving a lot of money is high and honestly, while it has been depressing to go through all of these different people’s accounts, to say I’m surprised by what I’ve heard would be a lie. Some are willing to go to great lengths to win because the horse world consistently downplays ethical treatment of horses. We discount our partners’ biological needs and the level of pain they feel, even going so far as to insinuate horses practice certain behaviours out of sheer malice or disrespect for their handler. This misconception only serves to breed resentment in riders and trainers.
Disrespect to grooms and other employees is not uncommon in the competition world. Many of these hard working people who quite literally make showing possible for those they work for, are taken for granted and mistreated. Often times they are working lengthy hours for little compensation. Their work is strenuous and the expectations of those they work for are exceptionally high. Luckily, there are many upper level barns who do show appreciation for their grooms and compensate them adequately, but unfortunately, we frequently see or hear about the barns who treat their employees like they’re disposable.
Here is an account related to the treatment of grooms coming from someone employed at a rated show park in the US, which recently added an FEI sanctioned event to their event schedule.
For the first time we added a new show, which was a FEI show, so there were big names. They bring in their management and pretty much “Rent our facility” but my team still had to help them. Well, the Director of the jumping tour REFUSED to provide showers for the grooms that had to stay on the show grounds. Now, at the park I work for and mostly on the west coast, we treat our grooms very well so this did not sit well with our director and it caused a huge argument. The manager of the tour didn’t even want to give them bathrooms, and didn’t even really count the grooms as people! He literally said “I will give them bathrooms but that’s IT!” He also stated that “you Californians treat your grooms too well! This would NEVER happen in Kentucky!”
That is despicable, but honestly, an excellent example of how some of those at the top of the top may view those working under them. They are viewed as lesser, as mere pawns to use and abuse. Because of how many people are in need of jobs or who are wanting to get their “big break” in the horse world, SO many will put up with this treatment because if they don’t, a replacement can be found in the blink of an eye.
The next one reveals how such abuse of grooms can start even with younger riders.
I was at a recognized dressage show once and I was there one morning to feed my horse and a groom that had obviously been there for hours braiding show horses, was in the stall. These entitled young girls stroll in late and are dressed to show. They said “have they had breakfast yet?” And the groom very quietly asked “me?” And the girls laughed and said “no stupid, our horses!” And the groom said yes... I’m sure he didnt eat till noon that day because I saw him at the concession stand later scarfing down food. I felt so awful for him, that really stuck with me...
This last account, sent from a groom on the circuit, sums up what grooms may put up with in their jobs only to be massively under appreciated:
Working from 4am-9pm (if nothing went wrong and we got out on time) without breaks or days off. Sometimes, I even bled through my jeans when I was on my period because I would be yelled at if I took time off to go to the bathroom. The only food I had to eat was the little snacks provided by the shows while my rider was in the arena. Don’t get me wrong, working on the Grand Prix circuit was always a dream of mine that I wouldn’t trade for the world- regardless of the trauma. I was a shell of a person by the time I quit but I’m glad I had the experience.
Please, those of you who are rushed and stressed at shows or who may at some point feel frustrated with your grooms: appreciate them! Remember, like you, they are people with their own basic needs and own problems, life stressors and so on. They will not always have good days, but more often than not, they are doing their best and they deserve to be treated like the professionals they are. Grooms are not machines. They are far too often overworked and under appreciated, so please, take a moment to appreciate the work people put in for the love of your horses. They deserve it.
Such mistreatment also isn’t reserved for working employees; a lot of trainers abuse their students in a number of different ways, even though their students are paying clients. Unfortunately, such behaviour is widely disregarded because of the mindset of the horse world. Harsh trainers are applauded, even if the line crosses from harshness into abuse. Riders are often times just told to “toughen up” and learn to accept critique.
For 2 years, I was verbally abused by a trainer and she was actually slowly starving my horse, only giving him 1 flake per day. One time, she flicked chewed grass out of a horses’ mouth and onto my face because I didn’t clean the bit within 15 minutes. My horse lost 50 lbs in 2 weeks while we were on vacation. She also continually drugged her ponies and stuck kids on them. One time, the drug wore off and the pony bucked a child off, causing the kid to break her arm. It was disgusting.
In the horse world, it is also fairly widely accepted for trainers to body shame their students, going as far as encouraging crash diets. This is something virtually any rider can either say they’ve witnessed or had happen to them personally. In fact, one of the biggest names in the hunter/jumper world has publicly fat shamed riders on numerous occasions. I can attest to this personally, but also received numerous other accounts from people all over North America.
When I was taking lessons, my old trainer would not let me eat my lunch. I was with her from 7am-6pm on the weekends. She would always try to give me a healthy alternative so that “I didn’t get so big.”
One rider shared that a professional who has represented his country for Dressage at an international level told one of his students that she needed to stop eating in order to lose weight. Another says that during a lesson, one of the biggest names in the hunter/jumper world told her to “not eat anymore dessert” which is just one of the very many weight related comments this particular person has made to students.
One rider talks about a trainer that she had in her teen years and the damage said trainer had on her body image and overall mental health for years to come:
She once insinuated to me that if I wasn’t willing to starve myself to fit into the skinnier boots like she did at my age, then I wasn’t as dedicated to the sport as I needed to be. And yes, it affected me enough to actually eat as little as possible. She had this way of working you down to believe the insane standards she had.
I’ve also received numerous messages from riders whose trainers put them on shake diets or got angry with them any time they were caught eating food at shows or around the barn if it was not to the trainer’s standards. The following is the way in which someone was treated with one of their previous trainers, a trainer I heard numerous stories about in relation to body shaming:
She encouraged me to be on a shake diet and whenever I was there working, she would only give me shakes when she would make all of the other girls lunches. I was also straight up told by a judge that he didn’t place me in the EQ on the flat because I was “too big.” I was on a 17.3hh horse and was turned out the best and told by every trainer there that I rode the best.
This is an account on body shaming a male rider experienced:
I am generally a pretty slim guy but during my junior years I was teased for eating anything other than a small amount of food as they would say I would become “too fat for the eq” and it took away a lot of my confidence. The weight shaming got to the point where I would starve myself for two weeks before the show to “slim down.” I remember going to a big venue for the summer series to show in 2016 and I hadn’t eaten in a week because my trainer said I looked fat. I looked at myself in the mirror and couldn’t help but see myself as being “a fat kid.” I started to panic, still thinking that I was too fat to go into the ring and ended up having a panic attack and mental breakdown. I was found sitting against my car in the parking lot by another trainer who called the paramedics. In winter 2016/2017, I began training for the big eq after a year off from showing and walked right back into the world of harassment and abuse that I had left. It pushed me to my breaking point. On April 10th, 2017, only two days before my 18th birthday, I tried to take my own life. The years of abuse had taken such a toll that I would rather die than live my life doing the sport I loved so much. Even 3 years later, the harsh body shaming still affects me not only in my professional life but also my personal life.
Body shaming is not only specific to women. The above example is profoundly heartbreaking and should never occur. Another issue, brought to light by numerous different parties with firsthand experiences is discrimination in relation to sexual orientation/identity as well as racial discrimination. One rider in particular shared this story:
I have seen tons of homophobia and racism (specifically in the hunter ring). I was discriminated against by one of my coaches because I identify as a lesbian, for which she would always treat me differently, single me out, or yell at me more. To the point where it gave me severe anxiety to ride at all. She would also always pick on this one black girl at our facility, to the point of this girl leaving the barn. The hunter world is incredibly discriminatory, if you aren’t thin and white, you probably won’t do great here. Discrimination is known and swept under the rug a lot.
Now, onto the whole drug use aspect of the horse world as well as the culture of underage binge drinking and the driving under the influence that often goes hand in hand with it. Unfortunately, this part is pretty easy to confirm fact due to the number of riders who have actually admittedly had drug problems along with the open nature of discussion regarding drug use and party culture among young riders. Drug use in the horse world is far too often downplayed in severity or in some cases, glamourized. People fail to realize the risks they take with using drugs like cocaine, especially with the fentanyl crisis nowadays, it is like playing Russian Roulette. On top of this, there is a huge push to go out and party in the nights after classes, numerous riders have come forward to me, admitting that they partook themselves in drunk driving or drove with others who were driving whilst drunk.
This is a statement from a rider who worked as a groom for a large barn on the circuit:
Cocaine. It is not just a stereotype. It is not just a horse-world joke. When we would go out to bars 3-4 nights a week and get beyond drunk and high, it was common to save some for the morning to help wake up or when days got unbearably long. One day, we went out for lunch at a horse show with three very well known professionals who had a reputation for drug use left and came back twitching and sniffling, clearly high. Grooms did drug deals behind the barn aisles in Tryon. Coke was used to perk up during those 15 hour days. It was justified with things like “this makes me a better groom, it makes me more focused, this helps me get through a 15 hour day. This makes it more likely I won’t make mistakes where mistakes aren’t acceptable” This logic gets to you. You don’t think it will, but it does. I was the epitome of the “good girl” before this but after a month of 100 hour work weeks and the knowledge that you will be crucified for a single error, you can very easily be lead to desperate measures to stay focused.
I’ve never been a drug user, personally, but have observed the ease with which people discuss their personal drug use as well as make jokes drug use in general It is disturbing to see young people so out to lunch about what they’re putting in their bodies, the addiction it can cause and how much danger they’re putting themselves in. Addiction is no joke. The most addicted people out there, like you, once said it wouldn’t be them. That they would not be the one to get addicted. My brother, who never rode, was one of those people and now he is fighting a horrific opiate addiction. It all started with cocaine. It is easy to gradually expand what you’re willing to try once you start justifying frequent drug use, so here is my word of warning. All addicts initially believe it won’t be them, that they won’t get addicted. Remind yourself of that next time you try to use that logic.
Now, let’s talk about driving under the influence. Once again, this really isn’t any secret. Lots of young people do this; we see it all of the time on the news. Most of us have friends who have attempted to drive drunk or actually have and the horse world is no different. Some riders have even posted evidence of their driving under the influence onto social media. Getting drunk or using drugs is one thing when it is on your own time and when you’re solely endangering yourself. Placing lives of others at risk is a whole different issue and is just so incredibly selfish. Once again, this ties into the feeling of invincibility a lot of people have. It won’t be them, they won’t get in an accident, they’re a “good driver when [they’re] drunk!” All of this is an utter fallacy. It will be you, eventually, if you keep being a moron. If you want to party on the circuit, that’s your own business, but if you’re reading this and guilty of this, I encourage you to watch videos of families talking about loved ones they’ve lost because of drunk drivers LIKE YOU and try to justify it. Do not put yourself in the position to kill yourself, your friends or complete strangers over something so bloody stupid. Call a damn cab, an uber, a friend or a family member! If you can afford to show at WEF or on the circuit at all, you can afford a freaking cab. And if you can’t, I still don’t care; don’t drive drunk.
Lastly, and one of the most disturbing topics in this post, is the topic of sexual harassment and sexual assault. If this particular topic is triggering for you, I encourage you to scroll past this paragraph and not continue to read it. I also want to thank the strong individuals who reached out to me to share your stories and your traumas. I know wasn’t easy, and I can assure you there are a lot of people with stories like yours who may find comfort in knowing they aren’t alone. Thank you so much for your fortitude, honesty and for trusting me with your stories. The horse world as a whole is pretty incestuous when it comes to affairs in between other riders or trainers, trainers trying to sleep with their students and so on. While I may not necessarily agree with that personally, if it is two consenting adults, quite frankly, it is none of my business. The problem lies in the fact that people in positions of power, such as trainers or big name riders, may use their prestige to influence people who idolize them into becoming intimate solely in their pursuit of moving up the ranks on the circuit as a rider. Many equestrians, as a result, may be coerced into doing things they do not want to do or putting up with sexual harassment in fear of losing their position as a student, groom or otherwise if they stand up to what is going on.
Here is one person’s account of a close call:
A respected/well-known trainer, rider and judge slipped the date rape drug to a young FEI groom while at a bar after a horse show. Friends thankfully noticed that she was not okay and got her out of there before anything further could happen.
Another person’s experience with sexual harassment:
From what I’ve seen and personally experienced, it usually comes from grooms. I was personally sexually harassed by my grooms, they would slap my ass and say stuff in Spanish about me when I first came to the barn and didn’t know a lot of Spanish. I know a lot of other juniors feel the same way with their grooms asking about their sex lives etc.
If you did not listen to my trigger warning above, I am going to give another before sharing this person’s account of their sexual assault. It is very disturbing, so please, if this is something you are sensitive too, scroll past:
“About 6 years ago, I was showing at HITS Saugerties with my barn. One of the days when we were at the show grounds, I started talking to one of the riders there. He was really cute and super personable. His uncle owns a big equitation/jumper barn in my area. We continued to talk throughout the week. One night, I was at the show late taking care of my horse and he came over to my aisle and asked me if I wanted to go back to his hotel room that night and maybe grab some dinner. I said yes. He picked me up from my hotel and we drove to his hotel. We ate dinner at the restaurant attached to the hotel and we went back to his room. It started out really nice and then out of nowhere he started ripping all my clothes off. It was like he was possessed. I kept saying no and he kept telling me to shut up. I felt all of the blood drain from my face and I just went numb. I couldn’t stop crying and he kept telling me to shut up. He threw a pillow over my face and he kept penetrating me. I tried getting him off of me but I couldn’t. After a while I just gave up. When he was done with me, he threw my clothes at me and told me to get dressed. He said that if I said anything to anyone he would make sure I regretted it. I ran out of the hotel and asked my friend to come pick me up. She asked me why I was crying and I just told her the date didn’t go well and left it at that. The bruises and smack marks I had on my body felt like they were going to be there forever. I feel like he took a piece of me with him when he sexually assaulted me. I haven’t told anyone this story. I am too ashamed and embarrassed. The damage he did to me can’t be undone. It can’t ever be unfelt. Luckily, he stopped riding so I don’t have to see him at horse shows. But if he did this to me, I don’t even want to know how many other women have been victimized by him.”
Whether or not you have personally heard stories related to peoples’ sexual assault or harassment or have experienced it yourself, it does go on and unfortunately, for the most part, many are not comfortable coming forward to share their stories for many reasons. Hopefully, the introduction of SafeSport with USEF will help address sexual harassment and assault, but ultimately, the public stance in relation to issues such as these needs to be no tolerance. It is not the victim’s fault for what happens, it is the fault of those committing the crime, no matter the scenario.
The horse world has some remarkable people and can be an amazingly supportive community that joins together with a similar commitment and passion for the horse. Many people first priority is the health and happiness of their horses and are willing to do the same for other people’s horses. In times of hardship, equestrians come together to help others out of dark times and can be so completely and utterly selfless. A lot of the best people I’ve met have been equestrians and I’ve learned so much about good horse care and training from those I’ve been around and I’m forever grateful for them.
This blog post series has worn on me. Much what was sent never made it into the post due to the sheer number of accounts, many of which were very similar. But, frankly, it has frightened me. If even a small bit of this holds truth, it worries me for the future of horses I work with or horses that I sell. I do not want them to land into the hands of people like the ones that were discussed above. I don’t want to accidentally fall prey to working for or training with someone who does poor practices behind my back. It makes me worried for the horse world. Horses give so much to us and teach us so much, we owe it to them to do better. We owe it to them to report instances where we see unethical practice and we owe it to them to demand change if our voices go unheard when pointing out some of the shady things that may have been allowed to happen by those in charge. We owe it to them to make the show world safer for them and to work towards creating a community that puts the health of the horse above winning or making money.
The research and interviews I’ve done in conducting this blog post have honestly altered the way I will proceed as a professional in the horse world. I never ever want to become somebody who leaves the well-being of the horse behind in my pursuit to individual greatness or to appease clients who are far too focused on winning. I want to be someone who produces nice, competitive horses that are fun to ride while maintaining their individual personalities and allowing them to be HORSES. I want to work with clients, colleagues and students in a way that supports, teaches and builds them in a positive manner. That is my dream and even if I’m not as successful as a lot of other professionals in the industry, I can absolutely cope with that if it means my horses and my people are happier. Success means nothing if it is achieved literally on the backs of others who are being used and abused in the pursuit of money and greatness. I want no part of “success” like that and neither should you.
*The events discussed in this blog post are other people’s first hand accounts and though many came from sources I know and trust, I cannot guarantee the validity of them.