Definition: Ethics refers to principles that define behavior as right, good or proper. An ethical person demonstrates respect, responsibility, fairness & caring. Ethical decisions create and maintain trust between individuals or groups.

What would you describe as ethical behavior?

When in doubt about how to proceed with a particular situation, I find it easiest to think through as follows: 1) Define the situation in the most factual manner possible. Take the emotion out of the picture to ensure to most clear thought process. 2) Pose the following questions: Is the situation ethical? Why or why not? 3) Note your thoughts. 4) Reflect on the situation. (Self or group reflection) 5) Move forward based on your answers.


Lets’ explore some situations I’ve used to address this topic with 4-H Youth in the past. We can use the method outlined above.

Situation 1: Flavoring water with Jell-O to help an animal drink at the county fair.

Is the situation ethical? Answer: “Yes” It is good for the animal to drink water while at a show to maintain health. If the animal does not drink, it may suffer from dehydration and illness. Jell-O is a non-toxic food substance with no performance enhancing effects. Therefore it is ethical to offer the animal jell-o flavored water to encourage health.


Situation 2: A parent completes a 4-H record book for their child. The book must be completed in order to show the animal.

Is the situation ethical? Answer: “Maybe” In this situation I’d have a couple more questions to clarify the issue. It may require deeper digging to find a definite answer. According to 4-H rules the youth would be responsible for completing the book. In most situations I would say “No” this is not ethical and the youth should not show the animal.

“Maybe” enters my mind in the following circumstances; A) The youth has had an accident that disables them is some way to prevent them from completing the record book. The youth should however work with the parent to do as much as is allowable themselves. B) The 4-H member is very young and unable to read and write to the degree required to complete the book. In this case as the one before, adult and youth should work together to complete the book. Even better would be if an older youth helped a younger youth to work on the book.


Situation 3: Tranquilizing the horse because it is exhibiting poor behavior at a show.

Is this situation ethical? Answer: “No – I could consider Maybe” Again, more questions might pop up in this drama to reach a definite answer. “No” is the easy answer here. It is not professional, safe or allowable via the rules to tranquilize horses being shown. If you’ve been exposed to the equine industry long enough you will realize this practice does occur. Hey, I’ve even got a great story about a horse who displayed bonkers behavior in front of my major college professor (the judge) at a show. We worked through the situation and he won a class at the next show. We did our work in a respectful manner, as not to endanger others.

“Maybe” is the place I might be convinced to go if: A) The horse is so out of control it is endangering itself, other horses or humans. (As a side note, endangering yourself or others are some of the same qualifications used in committing one to an institution for any number of afflictions.) In this case, it would be best to enlist help, calm the horse and take it to the stall or home. The out of control horse is unfortunate because one would forfeit show and trailer expenses but enlisting help in controlling the horse or removing it from the situation is the safest option. B) A youth or amateur rider is involved. Again, let me make it clear the purpose of using drugs would be for safety only, not to get the horse shown. Drugs should only be used in the circumstance where the horse is displaying dangerous actions and only to remove the horse rider team from the show. The much better option would be to forget the classes and enlist help to work through the issue in order to prepare for the next show.


Situation 4: A parent is yelling at a judge because their child did not win the class or event.

Is this ethical? Answer: “No – Just plain No” I’m not saying that judges are beyond being questioned. In fact if you do not understand why a judge has done something or believe a judge has made a mistake, by all means question the judge. Questioning a judge should be done in a respectful manner and according to association rules. Most clubs, breeds or open shows require you submit the question / complaint in writing or in the presence of a ring steward. I would not define one adult yelling at another as “right”, “good” or “proper”. Furthermore, it does not set a good example for anyone to view adults behaving in such a manner.


Remember, we are responsible as adults (and youth) for mentoring future generations of instructors, trainers, showmen and horseman. One way we can mentor others is by modeling ethical behavior ourselves. My challenge to each of you is start & end each day striving to set the example of what a good, ethical horseman looks like.


What are some things you can do to model good equine ethics? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.