In My Boots: The Crundwell conundrum

The top horse story making mainstream headlines this past week had nothing to do with Rolex or the Derby, but with AQHA breeder Rita Crundwell. Kristen Kovatch discusses the scandal.

From Kristen:

By now, the Rita Crundwell case has made national headlines: you can read the details here among other websites. From my understanding, the basics are that Rita Crundwell, a multiple world-champion Quarter horse breeder, was charged with embezzling over thirty million dollars from the city of Dixon, Illinois, for which she worked as comptroller. Records show that Crundwell used her acquired funds to develop her breeding program at Meri-J Ranch and make such investments as a two-million dollar motorhome.

Whether or not Crundwell will be proven guilty of these charges, there are two opinions that seem to be widely held across the internet: First, that it’s astounding that no one noticed 30+ million dollars vanishing from the treasury, and second, that all of this illegal funding was the reason that Crundwell was able to win so many championship titles; some comments I read on various news sites even suggested that she was paying off judges and that the entire AQHA is corrupt, producing environments in which people are driven to steal in order to win.

To the first opinion, I don’t have much to say—I’ve never worked in city government and can’t form a fair educated opinion of my own. To the second, however, I have to say that the AQHA is not to blame.

The American Quarter Horse Association occasionally gets a reputation for being a big game of politics, a rich man’s show pen—if you have the money to buy the “in” bloodlines, hire a big-name trainer or even run an advertisement for yourself in the Equine Chronicle, you’ll be able to win. Anyone else doesn’t have a chance. My AQHA showing experience is sadly limited on a personal level, but I’ve heard my students off the AQHA circuits repeat some of the same sentiments. Especially in the halter, pleasure and showmanship classes, the rumors seem to be at least partially true.

And yet I feel that there’s hope. One of my AQHA-circuit students does not come from tons of money. She had to earn her horse from her parents, and she does a lot of the work herself.  Naturally being at school means that her horse spends more time in the hands of her trainer now, but before starting college she was at the barn every day, working her butt off, borrowing secondhand equipment and clothing, using the family’s minivan to haul a single horse to a weekend show and camping in a two-man tent to save money for show entries. She’s shown at the Congress and made a respectable showing. It’s not always about who you know. She showed everyone that sometimes it can be what you brought to the arena that day.

I won’t say that everything about the AQHA is perfect. But if we want to see a change, we have to bring the change to the show pen ourselves. Dianne Eppers, an AQHA judge and multiple world champion titlist herself, expresses such ideas in her western pleasure clinics: specifically, she refers to the shuffling, head-too-low four-beating-lope gaits that until recently were winning in the pleasure circuits. Trends in the AQHA start innocently enough: someone wins the Worlds with a certain style or kind of horse, and the next year everyone is striving for that exact same ride in the hopes of winning themselves. Everyone complains about the “peanut roller” and yet everyone keeps breeding and training for the same kind of horse: if everyone has one, of course one of them will win.

Instead, we need to bring the change we want to see right to the judges themselves. It’s up to the competitors to show the industry where it’s going. Realistically, we can’t hope that it will become impossible to merely buy a winner—but we can change the kind of horse that wins.

So in the end, what do we learn from Rita Crundwell?

Well, naturally, stealing is wrong. I think it’s safe to say we all know that. It’s also apparent, however, that the desire to win can drive people to make incredible decisions and inexcusable actions. My hope is that Crundwell’s story serves as a wake-up call to the industry, an example of how our show system needs reformation. I hope it inspires horsemen to make that change in themselves, their horses and their approach to showing.

It’s already inspired me. I recently purchased an AQHA gelding, Incentive Fund enrolled, pleasure broke and bred. He needs a lot of elbow grease. He has pretty decent gaits, but he doesn’t exemplify the current western pleasure horse ideal. But I bought him anyway, knowing full well I had my work cut out for me and that I certainly won’t be winning anything on him this summer. I didn’t buy him to win. I bought him to ride, and show, and enjoy.

Ultimately I hand this one over to Gandhi (not a revered horseman, as far as I’m aware, but still the most eloquent in this situation:) “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”

About Kristen: Kristen was an English major at Alfred University and was then hired on after graduation as the western teacher and trainer at the university’s Bromeley-Daggett Equestrian Center. She would joke on that irony but her students don’t find it very funny anymore. Kristen coaches the varsity western team, teaches classes in western riding and draft horse driving, and keeps several of her own horses in training on the side. She shows reined cow horse and also shows western pleasure and horsemanship for fun. Between her horses and her students, Kristen is never short on stories to tell. Some of these stories can be read at her blog at She has also been published in Today’s Equestrian and Take the Reins.

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