The Price of Integrity: On White Lies and Slippery Slopes

In Opinion

Life with a horsewoman is challenging, but it can also be rewarding (in case you haven’t noticed, this is one of the major themes of this website). I am constantly learning lessons, or having old ones affirmed, in a ways that significantly affect the way that I navigate the world away from the barn. In her actions my wife, Elisa Wallace, daily exemplifies virtues like honesty, patience, loyalty, generosity. In all she does, the virtue that best describes how she chooses to encounter the world is this: Integrity.

Sponsors are an important part of Elisa’s team. Horses are expensive, and being a professional equestrian is expensiver. A significant number of Elisa’s costs are reduced thanks to the generosity of companies who believe in her, and want to see her succeed, and so support her through product. From the very beginning, however, we have had this rule: Elisa will only endorse products that she would actively use and recommend even in the absence of sponsorship. As a result of this rule, our strategy has been not merely to pursue sponsorship in general, but instead to look at the products that Elisa already uses, loves, and recommends and to approach the manufacturers of those products about the possibility of partnership. We did not set out to find a saddle pad sponsor; we wanted to work with ECOGOLD. It doesn’t make sense for a rider to accept a sponsorship by a company whose products she doesn’t like, just as it doesn’t make sense for a company to sponsor a rider who doesn’t use their product.

In the last year, Elisa’s integrity has been put to the test. In February, Elisa chose to give up a substantial feed sponsorship because of evidence of the presence of a toxic substance (monensin) in some of their products, and as a result of disappointment with how the company conducted itself when evidence (i.e. sick horses) came to light. At the time, I will admit that I was torn between ‘doing the right thing’ (i.e. severing ties with the sponsor) and giving up a lucrative sponsorship, which would mean a significant increase in Elisa’s expenses. But Elisa didn’t bat an eyelash. For her, the added expense wasn’t even worth considering. The question was only about doing the right thing for her horses, and for other horses as well. She takes her role as an ambassador very seriously, and could not in good conscience recommend a product that could potentially cause harm. Elisa has always believed that doing the right thing, even if difficult, will always be rewarded in the long run.

For Elisa, giving up her sponsorship meant, not just an increase in expenses, but also a total reevaluation of her feeding program. It meant research and conversations about milling practices, and the pursuit of a high quality feed that was milled in dedicated equine facilities (since monensin is an additive used in feed for other livestock, milling horse feed in the same place introduces risk). What has resulted is a new relationship with a new sponsor, BUCKEYE® Nutrition, whose products are guaranteed ionophore free. The company’s people are passionate about doing the right thing for horses, promoting cutting-edge research, and educating the public about best practices in equine nutrition.

More recently, another situation arose in which a prospective sponsor insisted that Elisa use their supplement exclusively, in spite of strong research in support of, not just the effectiveness of their product, but also the value of using it in conjunction with other related supplements. This prospective sponsor said that they would be okay with Elisa using other supplements in addition to theirs, on the condition that she would publicly claim that she used theirs and theirs alone. Knowing that a sponsorship with this company would mean either going against best practice in horse care, or else lying publicly about her nutrition strategy, Elisa’s decision was again an easy one to make: She does not currently count this company among her official sponsors, and is unlikely to do business with them in the future.

These are just two examples among many that illustrate the extent to which Elisa is unwilling to sacrifice her integrity, even if it means giving up some short term benefit. The virtuous and honest way in which Elisa conducts herself inspires me daily to do the right thing in business decisions, and in personal ones as well. No amount of short term award is worth sacrificing the well-being of those around you, or of risking damage to your reputation.

There is no such thing as a ‘little white lie,’ (like the one Forrest Gump famously endorsed the Flexolite ping pong paddle). There is only the start of a slippery slope.

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