Faster and Easier: Over-Medicated Show Horses

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The horse world got unwanted publicity on Dec. 27 when The New York Times published an expos? about a pony hunter named Humble, who collapsed and died at last May?s Devon (Pa.) Horse Show.

The New York Times reported that he was scheduled to receive 15 different drug treatments, including anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids and muscle relaxant in the three days before he died. The basis of their report was a photograph of the trainer?s daily drug schedule, taken by the woman who was leasing Humble.

That woman filed a protest against the trainer with the U.S. Equestrian Federation, but their hearing resulted in no action since the trainer declined to attend the hearing?because the USEF could not subpoena her. She had paid for a necropsy of Humble, but she only released partial findings, leaving the cause of death unclear. Maybe Humble?s death will force a serious USEF internal conversation about over-medicating competition horses.

The pony?s death also symbolizes what's wrong with the larger American culture, dominated by similar mindsets: Lose weight without altering your lifestyle; make billions of dollars without actually earning it; even communications discourage us from waiting for anything. These attitudes are why so many riders insist on horses that can ?jump clean next week? or ?win tomorrow.?

For trainers, this creates a tremendous pressure, pressure that makes it tempting to turn to the medicine cabinet. Sure, the USEF?s leaders need to keep evolving drug rules. But rules must continue to balance the needs of the horse as an athlete with moral and cultural values.

The FEI?s no-drugs-at-all policy is no drug policy at all. It just pretends that horses are magical athletes who don't suffer injuries in training or competition. The USEF has long had a realistic medication policy that allows for therapeutic treatment of working athletes. But some unethical members always try to find something that ?won?t test,? something that they can give horses ever closer to competition ?to be sure it works.? THere's our culture again?faster, easier.

Some people are pushing for the AAEP (American Association of Equine Practitioners) position of no medications for 12 hours before competition, but that's the basic intent of the USEF rules. Perhaps that needs to be made clearer, for starters.

What else can the USEF do' Make drug penalties really hurt: longer suspensions, bigger fines. Require necropsies on all horses who die at USEF shows. And make an emergency rule change giving the USEF power to subpoena members to hearings regarding horses they're responsible for as owner, rider or trainer.

The courts have previously confirmed that the USEF is a membership organization and that participation in its shows is a privilege, not a right. So agreement with these rules must be a term of membership. don't agree' Then you can't show.

And riders and owners should know about their horse's care and be brave enough to vote with their checkbook by avoiding medicine-cabinet trainers.

?John Strassburger, Performance Editor