There is a lot of recent discussion about the hunter divisions and the many problems surrounding the sport. This is a topic that has been debated since the 1970’s when some of the top professionals recognized the problems and wished to preserve the industry they loved. Despite the efforts of many, show hunters have regressed dramatically as a spectator sport from when they were a feature event of the horse show at Madison Square Gardens in NYC.

The topic that everyone is aware of, but not actually willing to make the changes to, is drugs.

This is not isolated to hunters and jumpers. It is prevalent in every sport in the world. People like to win and some will do anything to succeed. If you want to change the way people cheat the system, you must change the parameters of how they are successful.

Here are three ways to fix the massive problem of drugging and quieting hunters:


Penalties for drugging/horse abuse.

Reforming the system of judging.

Enhance education

Everyday I hear top horse professionals lamenting the fact that there are too many trainers that do not have the education and experience to be in the horse business. This is an obvious fact. But really what kind of trainers do you expect to develop within a system that has no regulation?

If there are no educational requirements or restrictions on who can work in the industry as a trainer, you are going to end up with a mixed bag of people with greatly varying degrees of knowledge, talent, business ethics, ability, etc..

While this is the case in the USA and Canada, but some countries have programs in place that work. Germany is the best example. Here is a quote from Equestrian Sports and Breeding in Germany:

“One of the most significant elements in the equestrian world are instructors and coaches, also called multipliers. As they are responsible for the education of riders and horses, they have a great impact on the present and future of German equestrian sports. Therefore, the education of the instructors and coaches is an absolute priority.”

Germany has an educational system that is designed to educate and develop knowledgeable horse people, a huge benefit to the entire industry.

In Germany, the vocational education of riding instructors is divided into two categories: professional and amateur. The professional education consists of an apprenticeship of three years at an officially accredited facility and under a ‘Pferdewirtschaftsmeister’, a German master coach and rider, as well as the attendance of a vocational school. Candidates need to have good riding skills before commencing the apprenticeship.” 

How would this be implemented in North America for the existing professionals? Not as hard as it sounds.

Develop criteria for trainers, 100% based on the merit system. The onus will be on accomplishments as a rider AND as a coach/trainer. There will be several people that will be grandfathered in based on tenure. The ones that do not meet the requirements will be given the first opportunity to go through the new program and gain the credentials necessary to attend horse shows.

Yes, I do feel strongly that in order to coach at a recognized horse show that all professionals should be qualified. The competitions, who can restrict who competes and who coaches, are the only feasible way to regulate the sport.



I am dismayed at the lack of professionalism I see and disheartened by the fact that our industry in North America truly shows no concern for quality control. If anyone that has been on a trail ride can be a professional and compete against an Olympic Gold Medallist, there is an issue with the business.  

This is why we must not go the route of legalizing acepromazine, or any others “safe” meds for the hunters. There’s already a lack of incentive to be great at what trainers do; if you legalize drugs there is even less.


“A huge change is needed in this culture, which encompasses the doctrine that “quiet is good” and the use of medications to help this cause is criminal. The idea of using “quieting” medications to cheat need not be an issue if a legal amount of safe drugs is allowed.”

—Ernie Oare, The Chronicle of the Horse, March 2016

Though I do agree with many of the points that Ernie Oare brought up in his article in Chronicle of the Horse and believe his intentions are well placed, that course of action will be the death knoll for the sport of hunters. I admire that he made a bold statement, and I condemn all of those that have been so critical of his article without providing a viable alternative plan. He provided a straightforward solution to many issues and one that could be easily implemented.

Unfortunately, it lacks long-term vision and further damages a sport that is in serious need of positive press, which leads to industry growth and increased sponsorship.

In addition to regulating who can be a professional in the sport through the governing federation as referenced by what Germany is doing, there is a need to have programs to educate the young riders and trainers of the future through schools. While there are some places where this currently exists, many of the programs are woefully inadequate to prepare these kids for a future in the sport.

To create a culture change it must start with the kids in their formative years. Provide school programs that start in middle or high school and improve the college system to where it is producing kids that understand all aspects of horsemanship.

I am involved with a developing program in Vancouver that is an excellent step in the right direction. With all the specialty programs that are happening in public and private schools today, this is a viable solution to create a better future for the sport.

Increase penalties

The second part in stopping the use of drugs in hunters is the penalties imposed. Looking at the literature in the USEF rulebook reminds me of when I was doing research for the concussion protocol article. It is so weak and pathetic that it is no wonder many trainers freely cheat the system. Here is the penalty for a first offense for a Category 1 violation.

“Overages of NSAID’s and other quantitatively restricted medications such as Dexamethasone. First offense – Censure and $750-$1,000 fine.” 

I have no words to describe how appalled I am by reading this “penalty”. If you want to stop people from illegally using drugs, the penalties need to be enough to discourage them. Let’s look at what baseball currently imposes for drug violations.

  • First positive test result: 80 game suspension
  • Second positive test result: 162 game suspension (the entire season, including the postseason)
  • Third positive test result: lifetime ban

Recently tennis star Maria Sharapova was banned from competition for two years for using performance enhancing drugs (the ITF actually pushed for a four-year ban).

The entire Russian Olympic team could be banned from the 2016 Rio Olympics for a wide ranging doping scandal. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) said it was “pleased CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) has supported its position,” adding that the judgement had “created a level playing field for athletes.”

Is that not what people wish for in equestrian sport—a level playing field? 

“While the IAAF’s decision to ban Russian track and field from Rio is a grand statement, it certainly is not surprising in light of Russia’s inability to sufficiently curb cheating,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University. “Though cheating still occurs in sports that have tried to become clean (e.g., baseball), the economic lesson to be learned is that if you raise the price of cheating (through greater suspensions and other financial penalties), the incidence of cheating will fall,” added Rische.

“The incidence of cheating will fall” are the key words here. This is why I so disagree with the current drug penalties.

My suggestion is simple and straightforward for equestrian sport. This applies to ALL illegal drugs or performance enhancing substances:

  • First offense: six-month suspension and $10,000 fine. 
  • Second offense: one-year suspension and $100,000 fine
  • Third offense: lifetime ban
  • These penalties will apply to the owner, the rider, and the trainer/coach

Some may think this is too strong. My response is no, this is a straightforward issue: do not drug your horse.


My next suggestion will have its detractors, and some reasonable arguments can and will be made against it. The response to all the future comments is twofold:

  1. I am looking to legitimize a corrupt sport.
  2. We are dealing with animals that are reliant on our care and judgment for their health and well-being.

There needs to be a zero tolerance policy on medication. That’s right, FEI drug rules must apply, no medication allowed.

There are many (literally hundreds) of ways to keep horses healthy and sound for competition. This goes back to educating the professionals. These days, many are reliant on the needle—it is easier and less work. This is NOT in the best interest of your horse. Painkillers can be used to make your horse more comfortable when on rest or rehabilitation, but are not acceptable so your horse can be used to compete for your own benefit.

In addressing the topic of excessive lunging of the horses, this also must be stopped. It is common that hunters will be lunged for 30 to 60 minutes each day. Obviously, this is hard on their bodies and can lead to a number of injuries. This one is easy to fix:

  • Have a steward at the ring and put a maximum of 15 minutes for lunging. Every ring has a steward, and when they are not there the ring is locked. The same applies if a steward sees a horse being ridden in the warm up ring for an excessive amount of time.
  • Make it mandatory that every rated horse show has one steward per warmup ring. Horse shows can and should provide this service. Very few riders and trainers self-regulate their sport, this must come from the federation.

Reform the judging system 

My first two suggestions are essential steps in reforming the hunter division to a credible and popular sport, but they will have a limited effect without the third step. Most people are competitive and like to win. To change the culture in the hunter industry we must change how people are successful.

The system of how hunters are judged is the number one priority in this discussion. I am not being critical of the judges, they work very long hours and most of them are excellent at their profession. The criteria by which hunters are judged is the problem. Horses need to not be penalized for instinctive and natural physical reactions, within reason of course. There needs to be a system where there is full disclosure; where hunters are judged with a technical score and an artistic score. I have written an article describing this in detail.

Figure skating faced a major problem in their sport in 2002 after a judging scandal at the Salt Lake Olympics. The ISU addressed the issue by revamping the scoring system.

This new system was created in response to the 2002 Winter Olympics figure skating scandal, in an attempt to make the scoring system more objective and less vulnerable to abuse.” 

Yes, you could say this statement applies to the judging system in the hunters. If the sport of figure skating can overhaul and revamp their scoring system, then so can judging hunters.

The courses need to change to promote a more natural manner of movement for the horse. This can be done even in the small rectangular rings we see at too many shows. Additional single jumps and fences on long approaches is a simple and refreshing look. Get rid of the boring and mundane side/diagonal/side formula, and throw in a bending line, a jump on the corner, and encourage galloping to the jumps. This will improve the quality of riders and the interest for viewers.

Three steps: Educate the trainers, penalize the cheaters, and reward the people that do the sport the right way. I am not advocating hunters be old-fashioned, lamenting what has been lost. I am looking to the future, to take the sport to where it is capable of being and creating sustainability and growth in the industry. These reforms are easy to implement—steps two and three could be in place for the 2017 show season. They will improve all aspects of the sport of show hunters; the riders, the horses, spectating and sponsorship.


About the Author

Canadian Equestrian Team member Jay Duke rode for his country in Washington, New York, and Toronto. He trained Mindful, the current top Regular Hunter in North America, as well as former USEF Horse of the Year award winners King Davide and Caymus. A clinician and judge, Duke has coached two riders to medal-winning performances at the North American Young Riders Championships. Find more articles by Jay on his website.