A year ago, overmedication in the horse show world dominated conversations at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Annual Meeting as the membership reeled from a Dec. 27, 2012, New York Times article by Walt Bogdanich titled, “Sudden Death of Show Pony Clouds Image of Elite Pursuit.”
In his article, the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist told the story of a pony that dropped dead at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) after receiving 15 legal medications as well as an injection just hours before he was headed to the show ring.
“In the cloistered equestrian world, medicating horses has attracted much less public attention [than racing],” wrote Bogdanich. “While show-horse trainers have abused some of the same drugs that have caused problems in racing, the Equestrian Federation has lagged behind in regulating how they are administered.”
A year later, USEF CEO John Long made the bold move of asking the investigative reporter to speak in a luncheon address at the annual meeting, held Jan. 8-12 in Lexington, Ky.
“It would appear that USEF has gotten the message that more needed to be done,” said Bogdanich. He referenced USEF President Chrystine Tauber’s letter to 38 breed and discipline committees reminding them that horse welfare is at the heart of the Federation’s mission. He talked about the town hall meetings held in Wellington, Fla., and on the USEF Network. He pointed to the extraordinary rule changes implemented in 2013 that prevent injections 12 hours prior to competition and make it mandatory to report a horse or pony collapse.
“USEF also has changed testing protocol, increased testing days, and the number of samples tested,” said Bogdanich. “All this would appear to me, an outsider, to be a step in the right direction, and USEF should be congratulated for doing this.”
But the USEF’s efforts to address overmedication are still underway, and two significant rule changes were added to the list of prohibited practices at the 2014 meeting.
GR 414.4 addresses shockwave therapy. It states that the treatment may only be administered by a veterinarian or on order of a veterinarian, and only up to three days preceding a competition. After that there is an exception for the back and pelvic area, but then the treatment must be administered by a veterinarian, and the trainer must submit medication forms. No shockwave is allowed 12 hours prior to competition.
USEF chief administrator of the Drugs and Medications department Stephen Schumacher, DVM, stressed that shockwave is a good treatment when used appropriately. “The concern is that besides the therapeutic value, there is a component of analgesia that’s a secondary corollary to the therapy,” he said. “We see horses that are shockwaved and sent to the ring. People are using this modality not for the therapeutic value but for the analgesic effect. It’s not a whole lot different than injecting with Lidocaine and sending the horse to the ring.”
One of the main concerns about prohibiting shockwave three days before competition was enforceability.
“I’m all for this,” said top show jumper Beezie Madden. “But I’d be more in favor if there was a way to enforce it. Unfortunately, with no way to enforce it, you’re favoring the people who cheat over the people who try to follow the rules.”
Schumacher admitted there’s no test yet that can identify when a horse was shockwaved, although there is ongoing research to identify bio-markers after the treatment, and a test may be available in the next year or two.
But he pointed out that this should address shockwaving a horse directly before sending it into the ring, as the treatment is loud and obvious on the showgrounds. And he stressed that as a prohibited practice, it’s less of a drugs and medication rule and more of a definition of what’s best for your horse.
“When we started educating people about what’s right and what’s wrong, what may be appropriate and what might not be helping the horse but hurting, we’ve seen real change in people’s attitudes,” he said.
“I think this sends a strong message, and that’s important,” said U.S. Dressage Federation President and Grand Prix dressage rider George Williams.
GR 414.3 was a similar prohibited practices rule preventing horses from receiving intra-synovial injections (joint, tendon sheath or bursa) within four days of competition. That time frame was extended to 30 days for 2-year-olds and younger.
“There was a trend at some of the breed shows and disciplines that yearlings were getting injected 24 hours or 48 hours prior to competition,” said Schumacher. “It wasn’t one or two. It was eight or nine in the barn, all the day before or two days before.”
While everyone agreed babies shouldn’t be receiving joint injections as part of their regular show regimen, it was difficult to pin down a timeframe on injections for adult horses.
“We reviewed this practice four or five years ago on the veterinary committee and tried to come up with a definitive timeline, but it didn’t happen,” said Schumacher. “There was no science out there. There was no common support for a single timeline.”
However, as racing has taken a closer look at joint injections, different groups conducted additional research and set timelines for appropriate withdrawal periods, which range from seven days prior to competition to as many as 28 days in some European nations.
“The major considerations are that when you stick a needle into a joint, you’re putting the horse at risk for infection,” said Schumacher. “But when you’re talking 24 or 48 hours, you don’t get time for the drug to work or to evaluate the horse’s response to treatment. It’s doing nothing for the benefit of the horse, and it could be potentially putting the horse at risk.”
As with shockwave treatment, there were concerns over enforcement, although drug testing may work a bit better for joint injections. “Generally if someone is going to put a needle into a joint, they’re going to tranquilize the horse,” said Mike Tomlinson, DVM, who sits on the USEF Veterinary and Drugs and Medication Committees. “If we see tranquilizer within a few days and we also see a steroid, we’re going to be alerted that maybe things are amiss since most horses are sedated during the process, and many substances injected into a joint will show up in a test.”
But he reiterated that it’s a prohibited practice rule, not a medication rule. “It’s very similar to whip rules and things like that,” he said. “There’s no way to drug test whether you whip your horse. There’s no way to drug test whether someone stuck a needle into a joint. This is a practice that is currently being done that needs to be stopped.”
The third contentious rule regarding drugs and medication was a change that would allow the USEF to hold biological samples collected at shows for up to eight years after the competition in GR402, 406 and 412. Sometimes there is no test for forbidden substances, but one is developed later, and this would enable the USEF to go back and re-test after a test exists.
While people weren’t necessarily against the concept, they strongly opposed the idea of eight years. Horse show manager Bob Bell pointed out that you only have to keep entry blanks for three years, and he’d need to rent additional storage space in addition to the paperwork nightmare of holding onto that paperwork for eight years. Madden wondered what would happen if a positive showed up from a team selection trials years later. Everyone worried about trying to redistribute prizes and money long after a horse might have ended his competition career or gone on to a new owner.
The World Anti-Doping Agency retains samples for eight years, and the Fédération Equestre Internationale has implemented a rule that would allow for saving samples from major championships for eight years, but attendees at the USEF meeting felt a lot of questions needed to be resolved before they’d be willing to get on board with that timeframe. Olympic show jumper Will Simpson suggested reducing the number to four years and restricting it to championships, which the International Disciplines Council put forward to the Board of Directors. The rule got referred to the mid-year meeting for more work.
GR 1204.1, a rule that would require treating veterinarians at competitions to be USEF members in some capacity, also got referred to the mid-year meeting. The idea was to create a list of veterinarians working at USEF shows in order to educate them about the rules, but many people felt the rule change proposal was unclear and could be a burden for show management.
GR1301.9, a rule prohibiting ear buds, tablets and cell phones while riding, got referred to a later meeting. Representatives from disciplines such as dressage, where riders routinely use ear buds for instruction and freestyle preparation, said it wouldn’t work for them, so it may get re-introduced as a hunter/jumper-specific rule.
GR1301, the rule about dogs on the showgrounds, received a makeover at this year’s annual meeting. Now it’s a mandatory warning card for dogs found loose during the competition, and they must be held on a leash or otherwise restrained.
Changes to HU168, 169, 171, 173, 176, 177, 178 and 179, rules regarding measuring specifications, procedures and protest policies for ponies and horses, passed. Now a horse or pony will need to be re-measured every year until the animal turns 8, at which point a standard card will be granted, although horses and ponies that already have a standard measurement card before Dec. 1, 2014, won't need to be re-measured.
To see all the rule changes, those approved, disapproved and referred, visit rulechanges.usef.org.
To read more about the USEF Annual Meeting, including an in-depth discussion on the new restructure of the Board of Directors, which was implemented at this meeting, check out the Feb. 10 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.