Your trainer meets you at the out-gate and starts to critique your round as you hop off your horse. That's when a total stranger walks up and says, "Hi. I'm with the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and your horse has been selected for testing."
If you're like 99 percent of horse-show competitors, you don't dope your horse. But you can't help gulping when you hear those words—it's like being called to the principal's office in junior high. Did you or your trainer make a mistake? Are you in trouble?
The USEF regulations for drugs and medications can seem complicated, and changes this year may affect you. In this article Stephen Schumacher, DVM, chief administrator of the USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Program, explains the changes and tells you how to make sure you stay on the right side of the rules.
The goal of the USEF program is to protect horses from abuse and maintain a level playing field, so no competitor gains an unfair advantage through chemistry. And it's working, Dr. Schumacher says. Of the 10,000 to 12,000 horses that the USEF tests annually (not a huge number, considering how often horses compete and the number of disciplines that the federation oversees), anywhere from 50 to 100 may test positive in a given year—1 percent or less.
"The low rate of positives doesn't mean the program isn't needed," Dr. Schumacher says. "The numbers are low because the program is there—deterrence is its main effect. We would rather educate than adjudicate."
Education starts with understanding what is and isn't legal. It's all spelled out in the USEF Rule Book.
Read All About It
General rules 401 through 413 outline the procedures for testing and enforcement and explain in general what is and isn't permitted. These rules are carefully (and sometimes densely) worded but definitely worth the read. Anyone who signs an entry form at a USEF-recognized show needs to understand them because that person (usually the trainer, acting as the agent of the owner) has the primary responsibility for making sure the rules are followed. The separate "2012 Guidelines for Drugs and Medications," available on the USEF website or in a pamphlet from the federation, provide a roadmap for staying out of trouble.
The rules allow different breeds and divisions to adopt different standards for permitted medications; endurance horses, for example, are subject to strict "no foreign substances" requirements. Here we'll focus on the rules and guidelines that apply to hunter, jumper, eventing and dressage divisions. These rules don't give you a list of every substance that is and isn't allowed, although they do mention some specifics. New drugs are always being developed, and there will always be a few people willing to try new ways to gain an advantage.
To cover all cases, the rules classify substances based on their actions and uses. Permitted substances, which are not regulated by USEF, include vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, dewormers and most antibiotics (except procaine penicillin—penicillin is OK, but procaine is a local anesthetic that can linger in the horse's system). They can be given to a horse at any time, including at a competition. Other drugs are sorted into two groups, restricted and forbidden.
These drugs can be used for therapeutic reasons—that is, to treat an injury or disease—but they're subject to strict limits on the amount of the drug or its metabolites (breakdown products) that can be in blood or urine at the time of competition, as set out in Rule 410. They include the muscle relaxant methocarbamol (Robaxin), the corticosteroid dexamethasone (Azium) and seven nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: phenylbutazone, flunixin meglumine (Banamine), ketoprofen (Ketofen), meclofenamic acid (Arquel), naproxen (Equiproxen), diclofenac (Surpass, a topical) and firocoxib (Equioxx). Theobromine, a metabolite of caffeine and related substances, is also in this category; the limit is just enough to account for any the horse might get through diet.
You should know:
- The "2012 Guidelines for Drugs and Medications" provide detection times for restricted substances, to help you judge when blood and urine levels are likely to be within legal limits. For example, if your horse breaks out in hives and you give him oral dexamethasone at the dosage listed in the guidelines, his blood levels should be OK in six hours.
- The times listed in the guidelines are recommendations, not rules, and the drug clearance times vary with dosage rates, the form of the drug and how it's delivered. If your horse tests over the limit, he's in violation whether or not you followed the guidelines.
- Compounded medications (made up to order by compounding pharmacies) call for special care because ingredients may vary more than they do in manufactured drugs.
New this year:
- Only one NSAID can be present in a sample; previously the rules allowed two. "This is probably the most significant change this year," Dr. Schumacher says. The change, which took effect December 1, 2011, was made to end the potentially harmful practice of "stacking" these drugs.
- With just one NSAID allowed, detection times have been reduced from seven days to 72 hours for these drugs. If your horse has been getting two NSAIDs, you need to stop one of them at least 72 hours before competing. Only one can be administered in the 72 hours before a competition, and that one must be within the limits set by the rules.
- Although only one NSAID is allowed, there's a new emergency provision for therapeutic use of Banamine (flunixin meglumine) for colic or eye problems, conditions for which this drug is particularly helpful. Suppose your horse was given phenylbutazone before a competition and you stopped the drug to allow for the recommended withdrawal time. Then, at the show, he colics. Under the new rule, he can have Banamine—a single dose, limited quantity—and return to competition in 24 hours. "Under the old rules he couldn't have Banamine unless he waited seven days to compete, so the change is an improvement." Schumacher says. "The caveat is that you must have a veterinarian administer the drug and submit a medication report to show officials."