Blood on the Barn Door

eventing horse welfare

Marilyn little bloody mouth

The USEA Core Values focus on “education, horse welfare, partnership, the thrill, ethical behavior, integrity, safety, service, accountability, and a sense of urgency.” These values are being called into question after the most recent Landrover Kentucky Three-Day Event where, for the fifth time, Marilyn Little’s horse was spotted with blood in their mouth. With no action being taken by the USEA, USEF, or FEI--again--I want to know how an organization that emphasizes well-being of the horse being of  “paramount importance” can stand back and do nothing.

Time After Time

Little is no stranger to controversy. To date, there have been at least four* incidents that have brought Little’s treatment of her horses into question. In 2015 alone there were three events Little competed in where her horses were spotted with blood in their mouths. At Bokelo CCIO*** (Netherlands), RF Scandalous was seen with blood in the corners of her mouth. In the same month, at Dutta Corp. Fair Hill, RF West Indie was seen with blood in her mouth from a pinched cheek. In November, RF Demeter had blood in her mouth at the CCI*** Course at Galway Downs in California. In 2016, RF Scandalous is again seen bleeding from the mouth at Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International.

*(There has also been talk of a 2013 FEI verbal warning about excessive use of bit but I was unable to find clear evidence to support this claim.)

Money Matters and Relationship Questions

Little is also no stranger to the members of USEA’s board of directors. Specifically, Jacqueline Mars, a member of the board of trustees, who owns a stake in both RF Scandalous and RF Overdressed. Mars also still owns RF Demeter, formerly ridden by Little. While the USEA turns to the USEF to regulate eventing competitions, a closer examination of the relationship between governing bodies and riders should be paid attention to. There’s no evidence to suggest that Little gets preferential treatment because of her relationship with Mars--but I can’t see this as anything other than a conflict of interest.

Mars’ support of the eventing is huge and cannot be discounted over one rider. Many eventers other than Little, such as Phillip Dutton, benefit from her financial support. Beyond owning horses, Mars has opened up her farm for training and helps to fund international travel for riders and their horses. None of the other riders Mars supports has caused this much controversy; none of the other riders have had their ethics called into question this many times.

So why does Mars still support Little? As sponsors continue to drop out, I’m left wondering why Mars is still hanging on.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Eventing is dangerous. Falls, blood on horses, horses having to be put down on course--these are inherent risks of the sport. These issues are impossible to eliminate through regulation. However, the rules surrounding abuse need to be re-examined, as certainly these events involving repeated offenses of blood deserve punishment. If the USEA stands for horse welfare and ethical behavior, as they claim, the governing board needs to work with the USEF on making hard, fast rules that can’t be left up to the discretion of one person working as a Ground Judge. And even rules about governing boards and the personal stake they have in competitions.

Why is it so hard to make a rule about immediate, automatic issuance of yellow cards when blood is clearly visible? This is a suggestion Sara Kozumplik Murphy voiced to Jonathan Holling, not just in light of the most recent Little incident, but years ago. In a recent Facebook post to Holling, Murphy wrote that she believes “...there is a problem in our rules because it’s possible for a rider to have multiple horses bleed with no ramifications.” And she’s absolutely right. This is the least the governing boards can do to ensure the proper safety and care for the well-being of horses.

Until then, we equestrians need to take things into our own hands. It’s time we put our money where our mouths are, riders and sponsors, and support those riders and companies who truly care about the horse’s safety and wellbeing. About the integrity and continuation of the sport.

About the Author
Nicole Tone is a writer and rider living in Lewiston, NY. She has a deep love for Arabians, dressage, coffee, and freshly-dragged arenas. When she’s not writing about the equestrian world, she’s writing books, book reviews, and poetry. She’s on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. She is also a Dapplebay brand ambassador. You can find out more about her here.

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  • Susan Cooper on

    Beautifully written. Thank you!!

  • Hayley Blanchfield on

    Thank you Nicole, and Jessica for so eloquently and passionately explaining why so many of us feel the way we do. When you love horses, and want only the best for them, her horsemanship and judgment are appalling.

  • Jessica on

    Here is the letter I sent the FEI yesterday:

    As I’m sure you are aware, we in the United States Equestrian Community are having a fairly widespread conversation regarding the results of the Land Rover CCI**** in Kentucky this past weekend that also decided our national championship.

    The horse of the third place finisher (and now our national champion), American Marilyn Little, was deemed to have bit her own mouth prior to running Saturday’s cross country. As per the current FEI rules regarding cuts in the mouth, the competitor summoned the ground jury and consulted with veterinarians, it was decided that the cut was the result of a bite, and not related to equipment or rider error, and the rider and horse were allowed to proceed on cross country.

    From that point, the blood is clearly visible in the horse’s mouth on course, throughout the course.

    The horse’s mouth is wiped after finishing, and another veterinarian inspection clears the horse again, but then, the veterinarians were aware the horse’s mouth was cut and bleeding prior to running cross country, so a secondary inspection clearing an issue they had already deemed acceptable seems a bit circular.

    I think the issue I am having is that we have a zero tolerance for blood from spur rubs. Initially I was reluctant to get behind that change, but upon reflection I have to agree that everything must be done not only to ensure horse welfare, but also to protect the public image of the sport throughout the world. I worked for a Brazilian rider. I know Stephan Barcha and have spent significant time around him at shows in Europe. He is lovely and kind and let’s be frank, like five feet tall. It was shocking when he caused a minuscule spur rub during the Olympics in Rio. But he did, and was subsequently disqualified. It happens. It does not in any way diminish these riders. They are brilliant and accomplished. But the horses and the legacy of the sport must always come first.

    We do not tolerate a minuscule spot of blood from a spur rub. It demonstrates our love and desire to protect our partners.

    While I was at the 2015 European Championships, Edward Gal’s horse bit his mouth. Gal pulled the horse up immediately and asked to be excused. Because we are horsemen. There is no reason whatsoever to compete a horse with a cut and bleeding mouth, regardless of the venue or the prize.

    The incidents of horses biting their own mouths are incredibly rare. It is so rare that in a lifetime of sport, mostly spent around FEI riders and horses, the only incident I have personally witnessed is Gal’s 2015 incident. The image of the foam turning pink on Gal’s horse’s mouth was striking and unsettling, probably more so because it is so uncommon. And watching Marilyn Little run cross country in Kentucky, the bloody foaming mouth was no less unsettling.

    If an athlete is hurt, in whatever capacity, they have the option to withdraw. Horses do not have that option. If a horse is injured prior to competition, and is ascertained to be cut and bleeding at the mouth, it is on us as horsemen to withdraw. We are their stewards and their friends; the more stoic and talented an animal, the more we must not allow ourselves to take advantage of that heart.

    If a horse is bleeding at the mouth on course, in any FEI discipline, it must and should be rung out and eliminated. It protects the horse and it protects a sport already too often under fire.

    If a horse has a cut and bleeding mouth prior to competition, it should not be competing that day.

    The image of a horse dripping blood from its mouth is not one that protects and preserves the sport.

    Asking an animal to proceed or continue while bleeding at the mouth, regardless of the cause, is selfish, if not cruel.

    I would ask you to consider a rule change that makes bleeding from the mouth an immediate disqualification, and give your ground jury the ability to enforce this rule. This demonstrates a commitment not only to ensure the welfare of the horse, but also to preserving the integrity and perception of the sport.

    When Jur Vrieling was asked about his decision not to take a whip on course after his disqualification in Rio he said “Today I did not take a whip. I just didn’t want to. It’s not going to fix it if he stops. He’s my best friend, and I want to keep him like that."

    We shouldn’t have to have a rule that says we don’t compete or continue to compete when our friends are cut and bleeding in the mouth, but clearly we have to, because every rider is not Jur Vrieling.

    Thank you very much for your consideration.

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