Jan. 15—Lexington, Ky.
Flipping to the back of Equestrian magazine to see who’d been set down used to be a guilty pleasure most U.S. Equestrian Federation members indulged in first thing when their copy of the official publication hit their mailbox. Digital access to this information via the USEF website only made it easier to discover who might have been complementing their training with a dose of mother’s little helper.
But the process of how the federation went about determining guilt remained largely shrouded in mystery until a sample taken from top show hunter Inclusive came up positive for GABA. A legal battle ensued after the Hearing Committee transcripts were made public, and social media exploded. Horsemen expressed concern over widespread use of prohibited substances, but in the next breath they wondered if innocent horsemen were being swept up in an unfair hearing process.
“Members want fair competitions and are demanding a wider net of culpability in determining who the persons responsible are. Left unchecked it will result in people leaving our sport,” said USEF President Chrystine Tauber in her opening remarks for a Town Hall meeting held at the USEF Annual Meeting on Jan. 14 on the topic of accountability for drugs and medications violations. “The doping of horses to enhance performance is abusive, and it has to stop.”
The Town Hall kicked off with a presentation of what the USEF has done so far to address concerns. A rule change to GR404, effective Dec. 1, 2015, headed up the list. Now trainers are not the only ones accountable for drug and medication violations. Other “persons responsible” may also be penalized including the owner, athlete, and support personnel such as grooms, handlers, longers and veterinarians.
“What we’ve learned over time is that there were other people who were designated to sign the entry blanks as trainer as an effort to avoid accountability under this general rule,” said Sonja Keating, USEF general counsel. “The goal is to really get to who is responsible and who should be held accountable for the rule.”
Next the USEF published penalty guidelines for the Hearing Committee. These guidelines outline four categories of offense and suggest what the penalties might be based on the type of substance found and the number of times the individual responsible has offended previously.
“These are guidelines only,” said Keating. “These will be given to the Hearing Committee panel, and this is a suggestion. However, if there are facts and circumstances that warrant a deviation from the guidelines, they have the discretion to do that.”
The USEF published a Hearing Committee pamphlet that outlines enforcement and administrative hearing process. It includes a flow chart of what happens after a positive test is reported and provides answers to frequently asked questions about the process.
The federation also asked for membership feedback via Town Hall meetings and a email@example.com email address.
They received comments like:
- “When is the well-being of the horse going to come into play? Is horsemanship in the hunter and equitation divisions really a lost art?”
- “How about just not drugging your horses? Better training and management of their soundness sounds much more humane to me.”
- “If a horse is in enough pain and discomfort to require medication within the recommended withdrawal time, he’s not fit to compete.”
- “Everything and everyone needs to be exposed immediately. It’s a real shame that it’s become out of control through corruption.”
- “Zero tolerance like FEI is the only answer.”
“It’s a broad spectrum of opinions, but they all have a similar thread through them, which is the welfare of the horse and a fair and level playing field,” said new interim USEF CEO Bill Moroney. “That’s what we’re trying to uphold here. That’s what the membership is asking for, and that’s what the leadership of the organization, the board of directors, are trying to answer.”
One often-voiced sentiment is that horses should be suspended in addition to the people responsible for their care. Moroney asked the Hearing Committee to discuss how they’d implement that suspension and what the unintended consequences might be.
More transparent Hearing Committee findings will be available soon. “We haven’t gotten to a place of publishing them in full yet, but the next step is to do a much more enhanced disclosure of the findings and the justification or what warrants the penalty that’s imposed,” said Keating. “Following the next set of hearings, a more enhanced explanation will be published.”
When members wanted to know why it took so long for violations to surface, Moroney explained that the federation grants requests for delays in order to get more prepared before the hearing and generally doesn’t announce the penalty until after they know if a defendant is going to appeal.
“We’re going to ramp that up and start putting findings out a week after the respondent has been notified [of the result],” said Moroney. “That way the membership understands what’s going on.”
Moroney also said people had asked that attorney fees be reimbursed for prevailing parties and that a non-adversarial hearing process be guaranteed.
In the last part of the Town Hall meeting, members were encouraged to speak, and longtime hunter/jumper trainer Ernest Oare jumped up to voice a suggestion he’s heard ringside for years.
“I have to think 99 and 9/10s percent of the drug violations are somebody trying to get a horse quiet,” he said. “What would be wrong with using a tranquilizer of some kind like acepromazine, a trace amount of that tranquilizer?”
He pointed out that it would just be at the national level, but that allowing everyone something like a small dose of acepromazine might actually level the playing field and protect horses from worse abuses.
“I want to hear the reasons why that’s not a good idea,” he said. “It’s a discussion that seems to happen every day at the horse shows, but it never seems to happen at this high a level.”
Equine Drugs and Medications Committee chairman Dr. A Kent Allen responded: “If you permit tranquilization and performance enhancing drugs to a major degree, and when you get into behavior modifying drugs, that’s about as major as it gets, then the IOC/FEI looks at it and says, ‘Your federation is not in compliance with the rest of the world. You don’t get to play with the rest of us.’ ”
He pointed out that the sport of reining used to allow more substances, and that as that sport went international, they had to change.
“I have empathy for people who are sitting there longeing their horse down. I don’t like that,” Allen continued. “If you have a horse that you have to use ½ a cc of ace, don’t take it to a USEF competition. Go foxhunt it or go do something unregulated if you feel you have to do that. I’m not recommending that. But don’t go to a USEF competition. There USEF is doing what its job is—trying to establish a level playing field and being concerned for welfare of the horses and competitors. This is how we’ve set it up, and I believe it’s the correct way. These are sedative, psychoactive drugs we’re talking about using, and there’s no room for that if you’re trying to establish a level playing field amongst performance horses.”
Others in the room chimed in to defend clean sport.
“I can’t imagine promoting my 9-year-old daughter to get involved in a sport where drugs would have to be used in order for my child to compete,” said prominent warmblood breeder Summer Stoffel.
The conversation transitioned into a bigger discussion of horsemanship today. Medications replace training for fast results, and robot-like performances are rewarded in the ring.
“We are in a world of instant gratification and instant results, and it’s permeated equestrian sport,” said Moroney. “Losing the horsemanship part of it is a byproduct of how the world has changed.”
Make sure to check back at www.coth.com for a full recap of the USEF Annual Meeting on Monday morning, Jan. 18.