let's Move Faster, And Slower, On The Latest USEF Drug Rule Changes

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I spent three hours on Monday evening watching the online streaming of the USEF Town Hall meeting I wrote about last week, in which the seven panelists discussed several pending rule-change proposals, dealing with drugs and medications and collapses or deaths of horses. And, of course, when it was over, I had some thoughts about what I'd seen and heard.

This Town Hall Meeting, and the others that came before it, are the result of a push by USEF members and leaders to make some rule and policy changes that have been needed for several years.

?As soon as you sell a ticket, everything changes,? said David O?Connor the 2000 Olympic gold medalist who just stepped down after eight years as the USEF president. ?Every disciple and every breed needs to be able to hold up a mirror and ask themselves, ?Could I go in the middle of Central Park and be on TV and be totally comfortable with everything I'm doing with my horse and everyone would be comfortable watching it'? let's deal with it, if it's not.?

Several audience members made pleas to slow down the rule-change process, to not make these rules extraordinary (meaning they could go into effect within two to three months) and to instead put them into the standard rule-change process (meaning they could take effect no earlier than Dec. 1, 2014). How about doing both and meeting in the middle'

I think the rule change requiring necropsies on horses who die on competition grounds, and requiring owners and trainers to cooperate with the investigation or face stiff penalties, should remain an extraordinary rule change, be enacted at the summer USEF board meeting, and take effect on Sept. 1. I urge that assuming that the USEF has funds to pay for the required necropsies that are this rule?s foundation, as the FEI and USEA have done for several years.

You can't argue logically or ethically against this change. We need to know why one to two dozen horses a year die in USEF competitions; we need the data.

As the panelists noted, it doesn't mean somebody did something wrong every time a horse dies at a competition. I believe strongly that in any type of equine competition, deaths will occasionally happen, particularly from pulmonary or coronary episodes. Competition places stress on horses? (and humans?) bodies?and if there is a weak link, statistical likelihood says a small but definite percentage of the population has a weakness that will give way sometime.

But we need to know if some trainers are giving horses medications that increase the likelihood of a cardiac episode, or some other kind of life-ending episode. As veterinarians Stephen Schumacher and Kent Allen (both members of the USEF panel) noted during the Town Hall Meeting, injected magnesium and Oxytocin will often cause adverse and usually fatal reactions. We need to know if and how many of these deaths result from injecting these substance, as has been alleged.

Requiring owners, trainers or officials to report the collapse of a horse within roughly three hours would be a completely new rule, and Schumacher, the chairman of the Drugs and Medications Committee, insisted that it's data they need, to see how prevalent the problem is and if there is a common thread. He said that it's not a backhanded way to ?catch? people.

Sonja Keating, the USEF general counsel, pointed out that a current rule requires owners to report a horse death to show officials or the USEF within 48 hours, but no rule requires collapses to be reported. ?But were getting a number of calls at the office about horses who collapse,? and it seems to be an increasing problem, she said.

A minor stumbling block is how to define a ?collapse? vs. a fall. Keating said they're defining collapse as ?a fall for now apparent reason. There should be a bubble over the horse's head that says, ?What happened'??

?You know, it's not just you that knows it if your horse falls down,? thanks to cell phones and social media, said Bill Moroney, president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association. ?The reality is a lot bigger than just us individually. The likelihood is that someone else in the barn knows it, and that it's going to come back to you.?

I was absolutely shocked to hear a few people argue that horses should be allowed to compete again 24 hours or less after collapsing. Competing at that show would be the last thing on my mind, if only for my own safety. If my horse collapsed, with or without me on his back, I'd be wanting to figure out why and to observe him for a period to be sure he wasn?t about to do it again. I wouldn?t be pressing to show him again that weekend.

Keating noted that this particular proposal isn?t a ?return-to-play-rule,? like the one that limits riders who fall in competition. But O?Connor suggested that ?we should be talking about that now, because we likely will need to be, especially for the jumping sports.?

I'll go along with moving the other proposed changes to the drug rules?which are mostly about allowing only three types of injections within 12 hours of competition?to the regular rule-change process?as long as they're passed in January 2014 and go into effect Dec. 1, 2014.

OK, let's be 100-percent sure those three reasons are really the only exceptions anybody needs and make sure we have a strong consensus so we don't have to spend years with 5 percent of the membership complaining that these changes got rammed down their throats.

Schumacher assured attendees that ?the practice of injecting is what we're concerned about, not the oral medications that are currently allowed.? Magnesium is the biggest one they're trying to, understandably, prevent. Injecting magnesium at all is craziness, because too much it causes immediate spike in pulse and respiration and, usually, death. Oral medications don't usually cause such immediate reactions.

Toward the end of the Town Hall Meeting, the discussion turned to eliminating incorrect use of drugs and medications and inappropriate ?training? techniques by changing the culture and demands or expectations of horse sports, by addressing what it takes to win a ribbon or a check so that the participants don't feel pressure to do unethical things. O?Connor observed that if we see our peers regularly over-medicating their horses, or keeping their horses in rollkur for 30 minutes, or using ever-heavier boots or shoes?well, it tends to become the norm. It becomes acceptable to think, ?that's what you have to do to win.?

?Hold up a mirror to your sport,? he said, citing two examples of horse sports evolving for the sake of the horse. One was eventing. ?It used to be last man standing?if you finished you won, from the military beginning. Now it's about training, and for the better, I think,? he said.

The other is show jumping, which earlier in this decade had riders going to dubiously painful lengths to make their horses? legs hypersensitive so they wouldn?t touch the ultra-light rails being used. To combat this problem, course designers returned to heavier rails and courses that were more about training and riding, not about slight rubs of the ultra-light rails. ?it's affectations like [hyper-sensitivity] that changes the norm, so this will be a constant discussion about all of our sports,? he said.

Show hunters and some of the breeds have the biggest challenge, because they're subjectively judged, kind of like a fashion show. The hunter norm has become an eerily quiet and slow-motion horse with an exaggeratedly careful jump; in Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walkers the norm has become grossly exaggerated movement that's far removed from what the horses were bred for originally; Arabians have become ?spirited? and even gross caricatures of their ancestors. The result is ?longe til dead,? crippling shoeing, and horses getting a list of ?meds? as long as your arm every single day.

Bill Moroney observed that the judges get blamed for transforming the oddballs into winners that change the game.

?it's not just the judging, though. I don't think it's the cause of everything,? he said. ?Sometime before that horse came in the ring, someone did something to alter its way of going or appearance, and a judge liked it, and that became the standard. But we can change the standard.

?This should be a moment of reflection. We should ask ourselves, ?Can I wake up in the morning and do this'? There are people who can wake up and justify why they're giving their horses Oxytocin, but the majority of us aren?t that way.?

And that was the point of Monday night and of this discussion: it's time for that majority of us to say, we want to remain able to hold up that mirror and be proud of what we do with our horses. We don't want to have to be embarrassed by a few who use inappropriate or unacceptable tools to be sure their oddball wins. And we want our federation to be able help us make it so that we don't have to do those things.