On May 16, 2012, ABC News Nightline aired an episode exposing show horse abuse taking place at top Tennessee Walking Horse trainer Jackie McConnell's barn. The episode features extremely graphic video footage taken by a Humane Society of the United States investigator working undercover at McConnell's barn. Horses being shocked with cattle prods and beaten in the head with a bat inspired public outcry. But the reaction within the horse industry included plenty of insistence that this type of abuse was isolated and that the publicity was overblown. Tennessee Walking Horse exhibitors used this publicity as an opportunity to claim the HSUS was on a "witch hunt" and testing procedures for caustic substances would yield too many false positives from shampoo and other innocent preparations commonly applied to show horses' legs.
I've been a horse show industry participant for over 30 years. Show horse abuse is NOT a new phenomenon. It's NOT isolated to Tennessee Walking Horses. And it's getting worse, not better. Here's why I think abusive training practices and unjustified drug use are so prevalent.
Jackie McConnell, the Tennessee Walking Horse trainer featured in the Nightline video, has earned multiple championships at the highest levels of the Tennessee Walking Horse show world. After top Thoroughbred racing trainer Doug O'Neill won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with I'll Have Another, he was suspended by the California Horse Racing Board after one of his other horses tested positive for excessive carbon dioxide, the result of a prohibited doping practice known as "milkshaking." David Boggs was suspended by the International Arabian Horse Association in 1999 from showing and judging after IAHA found that he participated in having cosmetic surgery performed on seven horses to improve their show ring appearance. Mr. Boggs continued to earn quite a number of halter championships thereafter, including a 2009 championship with Magnum Psyche awarded in spite of mid-show controversy over an alleged whip mark on Magnum's shoulder, and today, Mr. Boggs is one of the breed's top halter exhibitors.
Abuse Often Results in More Abuse
One disturbing form of abuse performed on the vast majority of horses showing in reining and stock horse breed shows such as AQHA and APHA is known as "doing" horses' tails. This barbaric procedure involves injecting the horses' tail heads with substances to deaden the nerves. Some unethical veterinarians will perform this procedure, but these injections, administered alarmingly close to the horse's spine, are much more commonly administered by people with absolutely no veterinary medical training using questionable substances such as grain alcohol purchased at a liquor store. The purpose of this procedure is to prevent the horse from using its tail reactively and to make the horse "pack" its tail, presenting an allegedly more pleasing picture in the show ring. While defenders swear "doing tails" is "harmless" when "done properly" because it "wears off," a quick scan of the warm-up pen at any major stock horse breed show evidences otherwise - scarred and crooked tails abound, and because horses can't avoid defecating and urinating on themselves, grooms rush to wipe unsightly feces and urine off of horses' back legs and tails before the horses go into the show pen. "Doing tails" became popular after Western Pleasure and reining horses wrung their tails in response to excessive spurring and were penalized in the show pen. Rather than fixing the problem, the trainers simply fixed the tails. Now, horses' ears are being injected to prevent the horses from pinning their ears back...
Horse Show Judges Can't Afford to be Policemen
Why, you might ask, do judges continue to overlook abuse and reward the cheaters by awarding them prizes? Most horse show judges are also trainers and exhibitors. One week, they're in the center of the ring, and the next week, they're out there competing. If Judge A disqualified Big Name Trainer for spur marks on his horse this week, how well do you think Judge A and her clients would do if they showed to Big Name Trainer six months later? Being both a judge and a trainer is typically economically necessary because judging doesn't pay well. At the same time, trainers can't afford not to become judges, because of the show ring influence it affords them.
Drugs are Easier Than Training
What's easier, training a horse thoroughly so it will go around the show ring quietly without spooking, or giving it drugs? How about teaching a client how to manage every stride on a hunter course, or giving the horse drugs to make sure every stride is the same? Horse training and riding instruction are hard work, and take lots of time. At the same time, many clients are impatient - they don't want to wait while their trainer works through a problem, they just want it "fixed" so they can go show.
Amateurs Need Trainers' Political Clout to Succeed
As I just discussed, most judges are also trainers, and therefore they have a strong incentive to make sure their fellow trainer/judges and their clients are not overlooked in the show ring. As a result, the amateur NOT working with a trainer is at a distinct disadvantage in the show ring. After all, if Judge A places the trainerless amateur above Big Name Trainer's clients this week, and next week, Judge A and his clients show to Big Name Trainer, how well do you think they'll do? Therefore, the highly competitive amateur working without a trainer is practically a mythical creature. As a result, most highly competitive amateurs are influenced, for better or worse, by a trainer.
Winning is More Profitable and Looks Like More Fun than Horsemanship
Trainer A believes in doing things the old-fashioned way, through hard work and training. Her clients are satisfied with small victories, and they pride themselves on being good sports and good horsemen. Trainer A discourages her clients from advertising their success in industry magazines because she thinks it is "tacky." Trainer A's clients have a good amount of show ring success, but they also have plenty of little bobbles. Once in a while, they even have a moderate wreck. Trainer A is always out there in the warm-up ring, riding horses and occasionally raising her voice to call out instructions to her clients riding their horses. At the end of the show day, Trainer A's shirt is wrinkled, her boots are dusty, and she looks tired.
Trainer B is focused on winning, and willing to do whatever it takes to get there. His clients measure their progress in prizes, and they take out glossy, full-page ads in national magazines thanking Trainer B for their successes. Thanks to Trainer B's "vitamins," Trainer B's clients are very successful in the show ring, they rarely have any visible little bobbles, and they never have any big wrecks. Trainer B also doesn't have to spend much time riding his horses. He warms up his clients' horses for them, so he doesn't have to raise his voice in a crowded warm-up ring to get his clients' attention. At the end of the show day, Trainer B still looks clean and fresh.
If you're sitting in the stands, who looks like they're having more fun, Trainer A's clients or Trainer B's clients? And guess who is making more money, Trainer A or Trainer B?
Show Horse Owners Aren't Hands-On
Most show horses don't live at home with their owners. Instead, they are generally in full-time training. Their owners might see them once or twice a week, or perhaps only at shows. Therefore, the owner isn't in a position to see what happens during the horse's training. And, without the emotional bond that comes from a day-in, day-out relationship with a horse, it's much easier for the owner to believe the trainer's explanation that the horse "needs" some particular training technique.
"It's Great to Be Different, as Long as We All Do it Together"
If an abusive practice is so widespread that "everybody's doing it," the exhibitors who don't engage in it will stand out. And in the horse show world, judges typically reward "different" only when it looks like a superior version of the norm. When the norm is created via abuse and drugs, it's hard to be different and still be competitive.
Show Associations and Managers Can't Afford to Be Policemen, Either
In the United States, the horse show industry is heavily segmented. As a result, there are competitions of all different types and sizes all over the US governed by hundreds of different organizations. Exhibitors have choices. If an exhibitor is suspended or expelled from one organization, they can typically switch fairly easily to competing in another organization's shows. Ditto if a particular show manager cracks down on a trainer - that trainer will just go to a different show with a different manager next time. Clients follow their trainers. Accordingly, suspending or expelling an exhibitor who is a trainer can have a significant economic impact on the governing organization - they lose membership and competition revenue from not just one, but multiple persons. As a result, it is particularly hard for organizations to crack down on widespread abuse. Imagine what would happen if one of the stock horse breed associations suspended every exhibitor showing a horse with an altered tail - they'd be out of business in short order!