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5-stars, Ethics, and the Warrior Mentality

Updated: Apr 10

It has been an intense two weeks in our sport, with the 5 stars at Lexington and Badminton on back-to-back weekends.

Both events had dramatic returns to center stage with great weather, record numbers of spectators, and high drama for horses and riders. The winners of both events gave spectacular performances, and their horses performed well within their capabilities. On the other hand, both Badminton and Kentucky showed us horse falls and severe horse and rider injuries.

We saw the best and the worst of human nature at play. Horses were ridden to wonderful performances, riders achieved their dreams, and others decided to retire and learn more before trying again. A superb rider, Nicola Wilson, was gravely injured, and great horses fell.

Is the sport ethical at the 5-star level? Is it OK to ask horses to gallop and jump for 11:44, the optimum time at Badminton 2022? Is it ethical to ask them to jump these tricky “questions”? Yes - I think it is. After all, I eat animals.

When I was a kid, eventing in pony club, I used to chatter to myself while cleaning the barn, pretending the BBC was interviewing me after a glorious performance at Badminton. So far, this hasn’t happened in real life, but I do still dream.

Eventing started as a test of the ultimate military horse: Dressage displays the horse’s training for battle maneuvers. Cross country tests endurance and courage. Show Jumping on the third-day tests the horse’s willingness to fight on, still performing for its rider after the grueling day before.

Obviously, we do not use horses in war anymore, but we do still go eventing. The problem is, this is a sport now. It's a game, not a battle. It is time to retire the warrior mentality that the sport arose from.

Our horses and we are athletes, not warriors. We should be winning for our excellence: our training, our athletic ability, our mental skills, our hard work and perseverance, our quick reactions, and our strategic decision making. Not for our warrior mentality.

At both Kentucky and Badminton, and now in our more extensive debriefing discussions on social media, the word “warrior” remains in use. Riders encourage each other to go out and be “warriors”. The horses are praised as warriors, fighting for their riders. This is not an ethical way to use animals, and it resulted in some of the worst examples of human nature we have seen in the last two weeks.

No horse should be pressed to the point of lying on the ground in exhaustion. There were 150,000 people at Badminton, and not one of us prevented that from happening.

No decisions should be made “in the heat of battle” that result in horses falling, flipping, or dying. There is no battle here - it is a sports arena.

Mistakes and accidents are always possible, so let’s accept those as acceptable risks, and let’s foster good horsemanship and sportsmanship, not a warrior mentality.

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