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.