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February 5, 2010 -- The most obvious takeaway from the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) annual meeting last month in Louisville, Ky., was approval of a controversial rule that will limit administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) to one, rather than two, different medications in competition horses (read my postcard on that topic). But if you thought that was big news, you ain't seen nothing yet.
There are higher standards being forged for personal responsibility, from exhibitors and show managers to officials. The payoff will be elevating the level of shows in this country. So many changes are in the works, from groundbreaking rules that may be enacted later this year to important trends that could lead to recasting the way things are done in many areas.
During the USEF's veterinary committee meeting, where the final details of the NSAID rule were discussed, it was suggested that "the next big challenge is non-needed medication going into our athlete horses." Just think about the proliferation of joint injections. It was decided, however, that is "a bridge too far at the moment," but this is something to watch for on the horizon.
Armand Leone, chairman of the USEF's high performance working group, made a point that it would be beneficial for U.S. medication rules to move closer to those of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation), which is trying to rework its very strict regulations. Meanwhile, it's poles apart from the United States in what it allows. Expect a battle if aligning more closely with FEI rules is proposed, with the long wrangle over NSAID use as a case in point.
What's apparent, though, is that horse welfare is more than ever a guiding mantra, and there's always a lot that needs to be done in this regard.
One thing that pricked up my ears was the horror that members of the veterinary committee expressed upon seeing photos of a show horse tied to a wall with a giant roller (along the lines of a PVC pipe) in his mouth. The roller prevented the horse from closing his mouth. The idea, we were told, was that when the roller was removed, the horse would keep his mouth shut for the duration of his upcoming class. This apparently was not an isolated situation. "This rises to the level of an investigation to see what a steward can do," said USEF CEO John Long, who was in the meeting. "This is unacceptable, and we'll find a way to get to it."
"Someday, the FEI and USEF will have to struggle with a list of prohibited practices," Veterinary Committee Chairman Dr. Kent Allen predicted. He suggested documentation and security are tools to stop these situations. They will offer a legal edge "and let people know we're not going to let these things go."
Then we heard the story of Botox being used to keep a horse's ears and tail quiet. The problem is that Botox is short for botulinum toxin, which is produced by the bacteria that causes botulism. Horses, unlike some species, are very sensitive to botulism, which can lead to tragic unintended consequences.
And at the other end of the scale, the committee noted, some animals in Arabian classes and other divisions that prize a high-set tail are undergoing rectal administration of irritants, such as capsicum and ginger, to get the desired effect.
I don't think it will be long before such heinous practices are addressed even more aggressively. As I said, horse welfare seems to be a bottomless pit of issues that need to be handled. One thing that will help is better stewarding, and the federation is making a big effort in that regard. Expect that good ol' boys and gals who let shows and exhibitors get away with things will be sent out to pasture. It was recommended that the fed rep program that was supposed to provide an oversight of what went on at shows be folded into the energized steward-technical delegate committee.
Rules that get scuttled also often are worthy of note. My favorite discard was the attempt to drop the term "owner" from the Amateur-Owner Jumper division. Some pointed out that amateurs who own their own horses deserve to face-off against others of the same ilk when they get in the ring. Others thought it gives unfair advantage to those who can afford to own two or more horses, as opposed to having just one. A compromise though, effective next show season, will let people compete a horse they lease or don't own in a show where they are riding in the Amateur-Owner Jumper section.