Coming back into eventing has been a strange phenomenon for me. The sport I knew so well as a kid and teenager is completely different a mere 12 years later. A huge part of this is due to social media- no mistake will ever go unseen…ever. Towards the end of the time I competed, before my injury, Myspace was becoming popular and Facebook was still for students. I still had an AOL email address and talked to friends via IM. My cell phone was one of those rock hard Nokias and it definitely did not take pictures. Oh, and we were still drinking the bottled water bought in anticipation of y2k. Man, I feel old.
Eventing was worlds away from where it is now as well. We had the long format, paper entries and you had to mail in a request for a horse or rider’s show record. We knew the people we knew, and didn’t know much about the people who didn’t routinely compete at the same events. Unless you subscribed to the paper version of equine magazines, which made for a super exciting day after opening up the mailbox. Gossip and rumors certainly existed, but that’s all they were.
I’ve seen the pictures and read the message board/Facebook posts on Marilyn Little. I don’t know her, I’ve never met her, and I won’t even muster a guess at how she treats her horses at home, or if she really strategizes with her grooms to run over volunteers so she can have a black towel at the finish line, etc, etc, etc. That’s my disclaimer before I get flamed for what I’m about to say.
In the past I’ve been appalled at some of her bitting choices. I’ve always been of the belief that you “train in a snaffle at home, compete in whatever keeps you safe,” BUT she seemed to take that sentiment a bit too far. Like, what even are some of those contraptions? That’s what’s legal in the sport, but bridleless isn’t? That’s where I believe some of the rules are just absurd and obviously not written by someone who’s come within 50 feet of a horse- ever. I had a very high strung, very strong 17.3 Irish Sport Horse as a teenager. He was my T/P/I horse and dude got wild on XC. So for competing, we “bitted him up,” which back then meant we rode XC in a 3 ring. At the time, I got some criticism for that from fellow competitors- yet that’s now what some people START their young horses in. Bits have become much more sophisticated and putting in stronger and stronger bits seems to be one of the first things people reach toward when they have issues.
Back to the point- I don’t know why her horse was bleeding. I’m not a vet and I wasn’t there to personally look in the horse’s mouth. A previous sore that got rubbed? A cut? Bitten tongue? If all that stuff coming out of the mouth was just blood, it surprises me that the vets couldn’t find the source. Of course, with as much saliva as the horse was most likely producing by galloping over a 10 minute course, the appearance of blood was likely exacerbated.
Here’s what I do know.
I watched the helmet cam video that was on her FB page and I saw the ears of a horse that was not being beaten to do her job. There were some pictures of the horse landing from a jump that some people were saying were also abusive because the horse looked tired, horse much have been exhausted, etc. Newsflash- a picture captures an itsy bitsy sliver of time. I just recently competed in a local crossfit competition and there are some pictures of me that I made sure were permanently deleted because I looked like hell. But was I overly tired and was it abusive of my coach to be yelling, “faster!” or “don’t put the bar down!”? No, because there’s a difference between being tired and being depleted of all energy sources to where continuing on becomes dangerous. Just because I didn’t have a perky expression on my face did not mean that I wasn’t capable of completing the competition. The horse in the helmet cam video did not seem overly tired or exhausted, and jumped each effort with what seemed like ease, and with happy, pricked ears.
Now here’s my OPINION on the bleeding.
Last year I bought the Premier Equine Eventing XC boots for Pilgrim. I went XC schooling and when I got him back to the trailer and took the boots off, there was some blood from a small rub on one of his front legs. I treated the rub, assuming that boot had slipped a bit and I must have not tightened it enough. The next time he wore the boots was at our event at Full Gallop in October 2015. Since we went from stadium right to XC, P wore the XC boots for both phases. We came off of XC, went back to the trailer and when I unwrapped him, there was a bit of blood on BOTH of his front legs under the boots- identical rubs on both front legs.
Pilgrim never gave me any indication, either in schooling, or during SJ or XC in the HT, that he was uncomfortable. Since I don’t stare at his legs when I’m riding (unless I’m about to come off), I had no way of knowing. But either way, blood was on my horse after I rode him twice in one month. Was I abusive? I’d like to think no, though I felt awful because I’m sure it didn’t feel good running through water and sand, and jumping repeatedly with boots rubbing against open sores. That’s the problem with having a teammate that can’t talk.
Another example is our XC schooling last month at Paradise. I asked P to jump a substantial log table and then my body defied me and pulled because holy hell, that was wide. It was completely my mistake and I still cringe when I think about it. P practically crawled over the table and then we jumped it and some other things a few more times before calling it a day. On the way back to the barn, one of the other students noticed P had some blood on his left hind by the ankle. When I jumped off, it was a slight cut that I will guarantee came from him sliding over the table sideways thanks to my jackass riding. So I caused him pain. Again. Now, would anyone know anything about those instances if I hadn’t just put it out on the Internet? No, because it wasn’t at a high level, highly publicized event. Now that it IS out there, should I be crucified for it? No. I would never intentionally hurt my horse, but I do make mistakes and horses are creatures with thin skin and blood pumping through them.
I’m not necessarily defending ML because, like I said, I don’t know her or her training methods. Is it strange that this is the 4th time in a year that there’s photographic evidence of blood during an event? Yes, but I’ve also now had 3 instances in a year where I’ve somehow been the root cause of blood on my horse and I like to think that I’m not abusive. ML could be totally shady and actually have strategy sessions to get black towels to the finish flags, even if it means mowing down a volunteer or two. I wouldn’t know. But neither does anyone else outside of those people who are supposedly covering up her abusive ways. I’d also like to point out that I have a few black and navy towels in my trunk/grooming tote. Black just doesn’t look as gross as lighter towels, and they don’t stain like white towels do. Not everything is a conspiracy. My point is that none of us are perfect. If you are, good for you, but please cut the rest of us some slack. Please don’t petition for rules that are overbearing. I will be really disappointed if I get pulled off XC because my horse got a small cut that, heaven forbid, bled a little. I’ve watched Pilgrim fly around the pasture, knock into a horse (he’s super graceful), pick himself up and shake, then continue flying around. Guess what? He had a small cut from the fall on his knee (if he could talk, he’d probably blame me somehow), that I had to put the Swat stuff on for the next couple of days. Note that didn’t stop him from chasing horses around the pasture. On the human side, my kids routinely fall and scrape their knees, or, in the case of Baby Noah, fall and bust open their head and require stitches…neither of them expect to be sidelined. I would be really upset if I received a note from daycare or school saying that because of the presence of blood, they were not allowed to play outside.
I’m going to step off my soapbox now, and while I’m sure some will say that I must not care about horse welfare, all I’m saying is that unless you have irreversible proof that ML planned all this out, maybe have a more open mind and think about a time you may have inadvertently caused your horse pain. Not even necessarily in the form of blood. Maybe you rode in a badly fitting saddle (guilty), didn’t shim a pad correctly (guilty), had a blanket that caused rubs (guilty), rode lopsided because you’re not completely balanced (guilty), or yanked on the reins, which I can guarantee caused pain, even if no blood was present (guilty). And then be grateful that there were no news cameras around to post it all over social media and message boards. Some people obviously aren’t so lucky.
Ok, for real this time.