The USEF Is Dealing With The Horse World?s Drug Culture

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Dexamethasone. Magnesium. Butazolidin. Ketofen. Steroids. Even cocaine. These are just a handful of the equine medications and human drugs that some people who are showing in USEF-recognized competitions are using to try to win ribbons and prize money. it's nothing new?the unscrupulous have been doing it for decades. But now things are starting to change.

The perceived need to quiet show hunters or to create supernatural action in Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walkers caused the leaders of the American Horse Shows Association (precursor of the USEF) to undertake its substantial drug-testing program more than 40 years ago, much to the shock of those who were training with a needle. And in the last year things have changed again, events that have caused the USEF?s leaders to once again increase their drug-enforcement efforts to a higher level than ever before.

Three things have happened in this decade that have pushed this change.

The first is our culture?s increased sensitivity to all kinds of animal welfare, a term and a point of view often confused with animal rights (they're not the same thing). TV shows on numerous non-network channels about animals suffering at human hands have promoted this awareness, as have cell phones and their cameras and the social media. it's easy these days to expose someone mistreating an animal by either commission or omission.

The second reason is the USEF?s increased financial strength, a strength that's developed over the last decade, as the result of steadily increasing membership numbers; of running a pretty tight ship, of fully realizing the benefits of moving from New York City to Kentucky more than a decade ago (greatly decreased rent, lower staff costs, and other benefits); and of an increased will to make drug rules even more of a budget priority than they've been.

The third reason is last December?s New York Times article about the pony who dropped dead at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) and the drug culture that surrounded that death.

The owner and trainer of that pony refused to cooperate with the USEF?s investigation into the pony?s death, which happened in the barn, not in the ring. That death is the main reason that the organization?s leaders are drafting new rules requiring necropsies for horses who die at competitions and rules that require members to cooperate with officials investigating the case.

?The Federation is taking on a stronger and more aggressive approach to investigations, which We've not been able to do until now,? promised CEO John Long at a USEF Town Hall meeting in Wellington, Fla., in March. He added that plans to increase fines and lengthen suspensions are also on the table.

Bill Moroney, the president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, spoke passionately at this meeting, warning his fellow trainers that they and their association need to make changes in the drug culture that's grown over the last half-century, before someone else does it for them.

?What are we doing to our sport' Is it really winning at all costs'? he asked. ?How would anybody in this room like it if some Senator or Congressman decided that no medication can be administered to any horses in any competition and got a law passed that said that' We have to police ourselves in this way?now. A minority of people are ruining our sport for us.?

I've long believed that the USEF (and the AHSA before it) has always had workable and horse-friendly rules about administering medications to competing horses, and I've said that many times in writing. If you follow the rules as a trainer or rider, you can treat your horse like a 1,000-pound athlete. The USEF rules are, thankfully, the opposite of the FEI?s ostrich-like approach, which bans nearly everything.

As Dr. Stephen Schumacher, head of the USEF Drugs and Medications Program, pointed out at the March meeting, the FEI?s rule is pretty easy to enforce?just about anything that shows up is banned. The USEF?s approach of allowing threshold levels of medication is much tougher to enforce.

?It would be much easier to say you can't use any drugs. It would be much easier to not have to regulate them,? said Schumacher. ?We're more practical and we're more specific than the FEI, because we have our own laboratory, which allows us to analyze the drugs we find more. We are able to implement a more practical approach.?

The USEF?s lab tests about 17,000 samples each year, from 9,000 to 11,000 horses. They generally test horses immediately after they've competed (a testing vet meets the horse as it leaves the ring and accompanies him or her to their stall to collect blood and?if possible?urine samples). But the rules also allow testing vets to test any horses on the grounds, at any time, especially if they see any kind of suspicious behavior. Practically, though, that's rarely done.

The hunter and equitation divisions, along with several of the breed divisions, have long fostered the biggest reliance on ?better training through chemistry,? but it's a culture that's creeping into all disciplines. I heartily applaud the USEF leaders? efforts to thwart that?for the horses? welfare and for the benefit of those of us who don't rely on the needle to compete?and I'd urge you to take part in the live online streaming of the next USEF Town Hall meeting, on Monday June 6 at 6:00 p.m. eastern time.

Go the USEF website and click on the ?Learn More? tab under the ?USEF Town Hall Meetings? banner, on the right side of the home page. Scroll down to the bottom of that page to find a ?Schedule? tab to register for the meeting.