Jan. 16—Louisville, Ky.
A. Kent Allen, DVM, announced to the U.S. Equestrian Federation Drugs and Medication Committee, which he chairs, that he’d done an informal poll of his clients to learn who’d read the recent article in The New York Times about drugging in the horse show industry. While he joked that it certainly wasn’t a Gallup poll, 60-70 percent of his clients had read the article, and even more had heard about it.
“It got pretty wide play,” said Allen on the first day of the USEF Annual Convention. “These things tend not to just blow over and go away. It’s going to require us to look at our issues.”
Allen pointed out that, to be fair, it wasn’t that the USEF or its veterinarians were unaware of the drugging and medication issues in the industry. In fact, a task force had already been created to start working on the problem.
But with the Times article, along with two ponies collapsing at USEF Pony Finals after injections and another horse dying on Dec. 1 after an injection at an Ohio show, the timeline for action has significantly speeded up. And Allen didn’t spend long praising what had already been done. “We as an organization should make sure we are looking at what we can do to improve our medication rules for the welfare of the horse. That’s our mission; that’s the specific mandate of both D&M and the Veterinary Committee,” he said.
“I see this as an opportunity,” said USEF CEO John Long. “We know we have some issues out there. It’s kind of difficult to fix them without some momentum. This might provide the leverage that allows us to do things quicker than we would otherwise have been able to do it. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing at all. Someone has held the mirror in front of us and given us the opportunity to address some issues.”
And the Drugs and Medication Committee members were quick to come up with a list of action items to start addressing the issue of overmedication and cheating in the horse show industry.
The first item on the agenda was making sure that people actually know the USEF rules. Tim Ober, DVM, suggested an online quiz that would force people to read the rulebook.
“There does need to be better awareness of the medication rules,” agreed Allen. “The people who show up at a hearing have actually read the stuff. The average person standing stallside, they don’t understand anything.”
Outgoing USEF President David O’Connor suggested incorporating an open book quiz into the existing trainer certification programs through the affiliate organizations.
“We just want them to go to the rules, look at them and figure out how to access the rules,” said Allen.
Committee member Martha Murdock pointed out that many veterinarians don’t know the rules either. “I spend half of my day talking to veterinarians at the shows who are asking me, ‘Can I give this at the show right now?’ ” agreed C. Mike Tomlinson, DVM.
The committee voted to recommend going forward with development of a test that could be administered through the affiliates in their trainer certification programs. This test would most likely begin as a voluntary thing for veterinarians and might eventually be required of the official treating veterinarians at USEF shows.
Two more recommendations came from the 2011 white paper produced by the American Association of Equine Practitioners titled: “Veterinarians Treating The Clinical Guidelines For Non-Racing Performance Horse.”
“The current use of medications to manage competition horses is often permissive and excessive,” read the white paper.
“Some of these horses are getting a lot of medication and in combinations that no one ever thought of using together,” expanded Allen. “A lot of medications can be given to these horses and in a short period of time right before they go compete. It exists, and it’s a problem.”
It isn’t uncommon for one veterinarian to prescribe a medication in response to a specific ailment and then for the horse to visit many more veterinarians as it travels from show to show, never discontinuing the use of any drug. Soon his daily regimen includes a bucketful of medications and supplements, and no one veterinarian has any idea of everything on the list.
Catherine Kohn, DVM, suggested a medication logbook that travels with the horse. While it wouldn’t be anything as formal as the FEI logbook, which is official and may be used as evidence before a tribunal, this would provide horse owners, barn managers, trainers and grooms with one place to record information for private use.
The committee agreed that USEF should provide a logbook as a PDF download, and the first few pages should provide an explanation of the purpose of the logbook in aiding horse welfare.
“This needs to be a philosophical concept about horse welfare. It shouldn’t be mandatory at first but strongly recommended as a means of improving horsemanship,” said Rick Mitchell, DVM.
Tomlinson suggested an app might be an additional way to approach the logbook concept.
The second recommendation from the AAEP white paper, which was also referenced in the Times article, was that no medication should be administered to a horse 12 hours prior to a class.
Allen maintained that this would mean little to no change in administering most of the legal drugs. “No one really likes the concept of a horse getting a shot and going in the ring. I don’t care what it is,” he said.
While the committee members agreed in principle, they suggested a few exceptions such as IV antibiotics and dexamethasone. The final version of a rule-change proposal will most likely allow those drugs to be administered intravenously by a veterinarian less than 12 hours before a class, although there was a fair amount of discussion on how to prevent abuse of dexamethasone along the way.
There is also a plan underway to make necropsies mandatory for all horses that die at USEF shows in competition or under suspicious circumstances.
Committee member Ned Bonnie championed another prong of the attack against over-medication and drugging. “We have for years said that it’s voluntary for a person to give information, and there’s no penalty for refusing to give information to the attorney for the USEF. That was made patently clear in the Devon case,” he said referring to the controversy over the death of the pony Humble at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) after an injection.
“We need to do something about that. I’ve drafted a change in the application for membership to USEF that would require a member of USEF to answer questions presented to them by attorney for USEF to produce the records of that exhibitor including vet bills, and details like that,” Bonnie continued. “There are things we can do constructively to assist a well-designed drug program. There are additional facts that can be brought to bear that the laboratory is not capable of producing.”
While the committee members applauded Bonnie’s efforts, Allen made the point that changing the drug culture of the horse show industry wasn’t something the USEF veterinarians were going to do by themselves.
O’Connor referred back to the eventing crisis in 2008 when horses and riders were dying in unusually high numbers. “We’ve been on the front page of The New York Times before. We’ve been in front of Bryant Gumbel before. The process of being able to deal with difficult questions that are being asked in the public is to answer them,” he said. “Answer them in a truthful way that says it comes down to responsibility. This is how we have tried to be responsible up until now. We realize there are some issues. We realize there are cultural issues. This is our responsible tactic to go into the future. The act of responsibility, much more than talking about a specific side of it, becomes the argument. I believe that is the same exact way we should go at this. The responsibility is the important part. This is how we’ve tried to be responsible and this is how we’re going to be responsible in the future.”
Kathy Meyer, USEF SVP of Marketing and Communications, suggested that a summit meeting, similar to the eventing safety summit meeting held in 2008, might well be on the docket in the near future to address the drugging issues.
“We’re trying to take all of these groups and share all of this and come out with an overarching plan,” she said.
To read a complete wrap-up about the USEF Annual Convention, check out the Feb. 4 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.