“At All Costs”

Last week I was watching a video from a meeting that happened last winter, with upper level riders talking about young horses. Yes, I am a boring person, these are the kinds of nerdy things I love to watch.

It was an interesting discussion, lots of different takes on what people look for in a young horse, buying from the US vs importing from Europe, the development of a horse as it goes up the levels, etc. As the session evolved, one particular very big name rider/coach said  “This country has to – HAS TO – want to win at all costs and it has to have horses that want to win to do that”. It was said in the middle of a statement about the top level horses really needing grit and heart and a strong desire to do the job, which I agree with completely. But then I was like wait, hold on… what was the first part of that?

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I paused it, backed up, and listened again. “This country has to – HAS TO – want to win at all costs”. Paused, backed up, listened one more time. “At all costs”. At. All. Costs.

It kept echoing in my head. My heart sunk, to be honest. That kind of statement, in a sport like this, is enough to make me more than a little physically ill. Just the very idea of saying “win at all costs” in horse sports, much less living it… vomit. Is that really what it takes to win gold medals? What does “at all costs” really mean? Maybe, at least I really really hope, I’m reading too much into it. I’d rather this country never go to another team competition again, much less win, if it meant we had to do sacrifice horsemanship or welfare (or, well, a lot of things) to get there. And perhaps I’m just jaded or cynical, but that’s the vibe I got. I know there are people that think like this, it’s inevitable, but I’ve never heard anyone actually say it, especially not someone like that. Is that mindset more common than I thought? It has me questioning and rethinking not just the past, but also the future of the sport as a whole.

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I’ve spent almost a week now mulling over that statement, playing it on repeat in my mind. It’s made me incredibly uncomfortable. Is that the kind of perspective it takes to get to and stay at the upper levels? If so, is any of this worth it? With all the issues we face in eventing, which ones are we sweeping under the rug and accepting as being just another “cost”? What all is disposable, exactly, in this quest for gold? Are there people at the top of every sport that share this perspective? I’m sure there are. Maybe this is the completely accepted normal among the elites and I’m just incredibly naive. I’m looking at things under a new light, especially the high performance aspect, and I don’t really like it.

Maybe it’s just this person’s perspective. Maybe she’s the exception, not the rule. Maybe she didn’t mean it in the way it sounds. I don’t know. I’ve tried to reason it away many times over, yet haven’t succeeded. The truth is – it bothered me, it still bothers me, and I can’t get it out of my head. What do you make of that sentence? Am I taking it the wrong way, overreacting, reading too much into it? Or does it give you the heebie-jeebies too?

24 thoughts on ““At All Costs”

  1. I know that a lot of the big leaders in the equine industry are saying this or have said this, and I think the statement echos with them in that, they are determined to ensure the longevity of competitive US equestrian teams. I think they fear loss of support in the equine industry and therefore loss of support for our international show representation. I get what they’re trying to say, but I agree with you that the statement “win at all costs” isn’t the way to go about it attaining a solution. Unfortunately, I think that mentality is why the equine industry has taken so many hits with the public reputation. At the same time, I think we’re doing and saying a lot of things out of fear these days in general. :-/

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  2. I don’t think you’re being over sensitive at all. I remember one of the defenses of She Who Must Not Be Named was “it can’t be that bad, she wins so much and you can’t win if your horses aren’t happy.” Which bears no resemblance to reality. The trainer at my barn has a reputation for psychology and relationship based training in western disciplines, and he’s had a bunch of horses in come to him that were winners, until they weren’t. And they arrive at the barn angry and resentful, which scars in their mouths and dents in their barrels where the riders spurs sit. Not rubs, dents in their muscles. But they won lots of ribbons! They must have been happy!

    Anyone who espouses a “win at all costs” mentality gets a major side-eye from me. Get a dirt bike if all you want to do is win.

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  3. Hopefully she didn’t mean it the way it came across, but I agree that it was very poorly said and should not be the mentality that we operate under. I would much rather our country have a reputation for being excellent horsemen and women, rather than being the most winning team with a trail of broken horses and people behind us. I want to see horses enjoying long and happy careers at the upper levels, not a rider pushing young horse after young horse through to make it to the top. Do I want to see the US doing well in top competition? Of course. But absolutely not “at all costs.”

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  4. I’ve heard that in other disciplines, so yes, the top of the sport says that and my jaded, cynical self isn’t even surprised to hear it. Your heebie jeebies are well founded. If they’re saying ‘win at any cost’, there’s going to be decisions made that would be disagreed with by others that value something more than winning. Unfortunately it’s a self perpetuating cycle. Those willing to do anything at any cost to get to the top will get to the top ahead of those with limits. Including limits caused by good horsemanship.

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  5. Oooof I hope this person just misspoke, but I fear that probably isn’t the case… I think our team needs to be willing and able to make adjustments to the horses in their lineups as necessary to be competitive. I think a lot of problems come from the fact that they aren’t willing to leave a partnership because of an owner or whatever, when it would be in the best interest of the horse to NOT try and be a 5* competitor. But “at all costs” of the riders/owners/officials… not “at all costs” of the horses.

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  6. WOOF that would be concerning to hear for me, too. I’ve never gotten that vibe from the episodes of Major League Eventing I’ve listened to, but now I’m wondering how many of those riders and trainers would agree with that statement, were they asked. Hopefully not many 😦

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  7. I’m hoping she just meant “At all monetary costs” and not in a Quentin Tarantino movie kind of “at all costs.” Maybe it’s just because she felt like quoting Winston Churchill? Being the devil’s advocate. But honestly the way I read it, it doesn’t sound good. It sounds like we are willing to sacrifice life and limb of humans and animals alike. This isn’t war bro, it’s just a sport, chill.

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    1. It wasn’t in the middle of anything even hinting at monetary values, more of the “horses have to be willing to dig deep even if they’re tired or sore or whatever” context. Which is why it gave me the heebie jeebies.

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      1. Not an eventer but certainly one of the most sucessful riders in his sport, Ludger Beerbaum had bern a hero of mine since I was a young teen. Then his horse Goldfever tested positive at the Olympics, Athens, I think. He blamed his groom, a woman who had been caring for his top horses for at least a decade by then which gave me pause. In my opinion the thing to do would have bern to take the blame and not comment further. Some years after (following another positive doping test on the german show jumping team in Hong Kong) he said in an interview that his practice had always been that everything that wasn’t detected, was allowed. This was in regards to medication but who knows what else it encompassed? He narrowly escaped the poling scandal in the 1990s because he had left Schockemöhle’s stable shortly before (with his former employer’s wife).
        Up until that interview from 2008 or 2009 he had been the figurehead for the sport, standing for the integrity of it. It didn’t take long for that interview to get buried but ever since then I have a very jaded view when it comes to horse sports, especially in the top levels.
        Maybe the person saying “at all costs” means something completely different but it sets off the alarm bells for me. There are enough top riders who get hailed as great sports people who are severely lacking in that department, from their choice off tack to the way their horses run around white eyed and with their mouths gaping to the way they seem to think rollkur is a perfectly fine warm-up tool.
        Isabell Werth won the EC Freestyle for a ride that had her digging her spurs into Bella Rose’s sides with every step. I am still suspicious that they didn’t find any blood on the horse, tbh. Werth has been barred from competing for doping too. It fell into her planned “maternal leave”. Coincidence?
        Oh, and one other tidbit that makes me mad every time I see him: MacLain Ward was caught at the CHIO in Aachen when his horse was found to be wearing boots filled with sharp plastic bits, effectively blistering the poor thing. A year earlier he had refused to have the boots of his horse checked by a stewart but got off. After Aachen the CHIO’s host banned him for life. That held for a few measly years it is said that the US threatened to not have any other riders start there if he wasn’t allowed back when he became a permanent fixture in the nations cup team). Edward Gal and other known rollkurers are still allowed to compete and have fans fawning over them. Marilyn Little isn’t banned either afaik. There are enough top riders who are successful, are sponsored up to the gills, are applauded for their success that have a history of dubious incidences or who were downright caught doping and/or abusing their horses. I assume the worst until proven otherwise.

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    2. I suspect those words came out without much forethought, and they reflected her true sentiments. She may believe that U.S. riders should be pushing harder and taking more chances, and need the kind of daring mounts who will enable that. Of course that is me speculating, that isn’t what she actually said, by this account.

      There has been criticism of Lauren Kieffer for not pushing Vermiculus harder on the English 5* cross-country courses, because they always have time faults. My hat is off to Lauren for giving her best ride for that horse, who is not 5* fast.

      Lauren has shown that on a zippy horse she can zip around with the best of them. It really chaps me to hear and read the snipe-y comments on her considerate ride of Vermiculus, who gives his highest and best performance to her on those courses.

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  8. I have to be honest and say the top level of our sport has given me the heebie-jeebies for a long time now and sadly I don’t think you are being oversensitive. I have had the chance to be around several top level riders and their words and actions have seemed to follow this line of thinking even if they didn’t say this sentence exactly. I am a solid mid-level amateur and I must say that at this point I have no desire to ride in the upper level or have a horse I own do upper level competing. I have even found myself turning away from watching the ul competitions because I find myself wondering these things as I watch and it makes me depressed. I truly hope I am wrong but unfortunately I have seen enough to think I am correct, and that makes me very sad.

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  9. That win at all cost mindset is appropriate for childish jerks who think of their horses as nothing more than sports equipment. I would rather have a happy, healthy and sound horse than a trophy.

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  10. Yikes, what an awful thing for any rider – or any sportsperson – to say. I’m sure that person would make a good CEO. Earlier this year I was talking to a clinician from Germany who is very horse-welfare focused and works a lot in the rehab sphere. I asked her if things were getting better in the sport, specifically dressage, with public opinion turning away from things like rolkur and Dujardin, with her ‘happy horse’ reputation, being so popular. She flatly told me that no, people were still putting ribbons above horse health, and in fact it was getting worse. It really crushed me for some reason, and I’ve been mistrustful of competitive dressage for a long time.
    It really makes you wonder, how many of those UL riders should we trust?

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  11. Im not a fan of the win at all costs mentality in sports (and probably even in life) in general. In a lot of cases being considered good comes with risk of life altering injury or death. Best case they don’t win and the media remembers them forever for being a “loser”. And for what? A game?
    Add in horses and I’m really unhappy with that attitude…at least people can choose not to participate, call foul when something’s wrong, or to stop when it hurts. We all know horses are way more generous than people. I can’t see how a win or else mentality is going to be productive with horses at all. The ones that want to give that 110% will get hurt or mentally fried, the rest will just opt out. In my very humble opinion it sems like as a culture we already break too many things and then just go buy a shiny new one. Unsurprisingly, that doesnt seem to be working out as far as winning things consistently. Weird anyone would think going further down that path is the answer.

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  12. I think being at the upper levels of ANY sport requires you to be a certain kind of asshole… It’s the flip side of being focused, determined and VERY competitive! I’m sure people like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong weren’t much fun to be around. And of course plenty of THEM dope! Which is one thing when there’s only you involved, in any other sport. But it’s all kinds of wrong when there’s also a horse (or any other animal) involved. We have it in endurance too, of course. I don’t know how you change it though.

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    1. You just reminded me, the odd time I read equestrian autobiographies, even the ones everyone seems to love, the really respected riders…I end up not liking them as much by the end of the book. So many of them have made decisions I’d never be comfortable with in order to win. Which, I guess, different priorities and all that, but it’s eye opening just how driven and committed they have to be.

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    2. To change this, you would need to overhaul everything…starting with the public mentality of wanting to see “higher, faster, longer, more!”. As long as viewers expect (and because of that: sponsors) want to see new records in every discipline there is, athletes will continue doping, will continue to overexploit their own bodies (and riders will continue to exploit their horses).
      I don´t think that any top athlete in this world is “clean”. I think they all use some form of doping.
      I am not so sure if every top rider dopes their horses but I wouldn´t be surprised if they received illegal substances regularly, if “only” to numb any pain they might have.
      Race horses in the US apparently all receive bute regularly because they are so prone to start bleeding in the lungs during races. I guess I was extremely naive but the statement that “all horses bleed and it would be cruel to not give them something for the pain *shrug*” really floored me. It also shows that people turn blind eyes to known doping practices in racing. Why should it be any different in other horse sports?

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  13. Interesting that it was a “she”, because I was thinking that there is a “he” in influential roles at the top of eventing who has expressed the “at all costs” point of view more than once. So I don’t think it is just one person. Actually, two “he’s” that I personally am aware of have made statements of this kind, publicly and regularly, and in crisis situations.

    In my opinion this sport has a real problem around the “at all costs” mentality embedded in the highest leadership. Even though I don’t think most of the lower-level leadership agrees with it. I think it is coming down to us from decades of some of the most entrenched, backbone-of-the-sport officialdom.

    And I think they aren’t kidding. I think they combine “at all costs” with “there will be losses”, in both human and equine terms. I’ve seen the attitude in many public statements from certain corners at the top of the sport leadership.

    I think this attitude is utterly unacceptable, and that it is the lower levels of the sport that need to start finding their own voice of sanity in this sport.

    As far as what kind of horse we are breeding for, personally I don’t want to be sitting on a half-ton rocket of a horse that doesn’t have the sense to turn away from an obstacle when even the rocket-horse sees a sure catastrophe coming.

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