Feb 8, 2017

Changing a Culture of the Sedated Hunter Look

By Kim Ablon Whitney

Recently there's been a lot of discussion about the need to clean up the hunters--to find ways to penalize people who drug their horses to get them quiet. In these pleas for equity, judges are often called upon to do their part by changing the parameters of what we are looking for in a winning round.

If you watch a video of a winning hunter round from the 80s or even the 90s, you'll see that they almost look like the video is playing on fast forward. The horses practically race around the course. This is only in juxtaposition to what we've gotten used to in today's hunters where the horses crawl around the courses looking, well, sedated.

People are calling for us judges to stop rewarding the sedated look. It's usually in the form of Mary Babick's recent commentary in the COTH, asking judges not to penalize the "horse that jumps a beautiful jump, lands and shows expression on the other side."

Well, as a judge, let me say, I have no problem not penalizing the horse that jumps beautifully and shows expression after a jump. That's something I do already and can continue to do, no problem. 

But I don't think that's really the root of the problem. 

As I see it, the root of the problem is that if we really want to fix this issue, those slo-mo horses have to be penalized. We have to dedicate ourselves to deciding that hunters should carry pace--that they should look alive. And that means not just that showing expression after a jump is okay, but that horses that show no expression and look half-dead (but still jump amazing!) is not okay.

But here's the catch. As the judge, it's hard to be among the first to judge this way. If we judge this way, the slo-mo horses who have been winning week after week (and who, by the way, jump and move amazing), are going to lose classes to horses who look alive yet probably have smaller faults that happen more frequently when your horse isn't drugged or LTD (lunged till dead) like spooking, peeking, swapping off etc.

In order to turn the hunter industry on its head, judges need to buck the trends, and by doing so upset a lot of trainers and riders who are used to winning. 

Will I volunteer to start this trend? 

While I'd like to, I probably won't.

I think I'm a very good judge. I think I'm objective and honest and knowledgeable. But I'm not one of the big-time judges who judges week after week and has serious clout. Those are the judges who would need to lead this trend.

If I start pinning the classes differently, it won't make a huge difference because I don't judge all the time and on top of that, on a personal level, it would mean I'll probably never work at an A show again.

So we can talk all we want about "expression" after a jump, not dinging that horse for the head shake, but it's so much larger than that. It's about changing a culture of slo-mo winners.

Kim Ablon Whitney is an 'R' judge in hunters, equitation, and jumpers.