Keeping A Few Bad Apples Out Of The Horse Shows

Dec 9, 2015 - 9:23 AM
Stephen Schumacher talked about the USEF drugs and medication program during the Town Hall Meeting at the USHJA Annual Meeting. Photo by Mollie Bailey

U.S. Equestrian Federation president Chrystine Tauber didn’t mince words when it came to talking about the topic that brought her to head a USEF Town Hall meeting yesterday focused on accountability for drugs and medications violations.

“People are tired of the charade and demanding a wider net of culpability in determining who are the persons responsible when there’s a drug violation,” said Tauber. “Left unchecked it will result in people leaving the sport. Welfare of the horse in our sport is paramount. They are our athletic partners, and we are their guardians. The doping of horses is abusive and has to stop.”

That goal led her to join USEF CEO Chris Welton, USEF General Counsel Sonja Keating and the chief administrator of the USEF Drugs and Medications program, Stephen Schumacher, DVM, to come to the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Annual Meeting at the Hilton in Orlando, Fla., and discuss a new change to GR 404. That rule change was passed on an extraordinary basis in July at the USEF mid-year meeting, which means it bypassed the usual rule change process.  

The rule, which went into effect on Dec. 1 of this year for the 2016 competition season, states that: “Trainers and persons responsible, in the absence of substantial evidence to the contrary, are responsible and accountable under the penalty provisions of these rules. The trainer and other persons responsible are not relieved from such responsibility as a result of the lack or insufficiency of stable security.”

The new rule also says that persons responsible “may include the rider who rides, vaults, or drives the horse and/or pony during competition, and/or the owner, trainer, and other support personnel.”

The new rule also explicitly states that a junior may be considered a person responsible.

In the previous version, the “trainer” was responsible, defining trainer as “any adult who has or shares responsibility for the care, training, custody, condition, or performance of a horse and/or pony.”

Tauber, who said that medication violations have been increasing over the years, cited comments she’d received from members about their loss of faith in the system like “If this country’s best talent still feels the need to drug what the devil are the rest of us doing here?” and “I too am saddened to see such clear evidence that it’s not possible to play at this level without acting unethically.”

Looking To Circumvent The Rules

While the town hall intended to give attendees a forum to tweak the new person responsible rule, some also shared their own experiences and frustrations with the drugs and medications violations process, calling for more transparency and changes to the process

Schumacher gave a presentation to help clear up confusion on how the drug violation process worked, explaining that more than 17,000 tests are performed annually and that cross-contamination is not a pervasive issue, as many believe. He re-emphasized that the USEF drugs and medication program isn’t setting out to demonize and unfairly trap exhibitors.

He referred to an instance earlier in the year when there were 14 positives for phenibut (β-phenyl gamma aminobutyric acid)—which wasn’t specifically banned, but is a derivative of the GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid), which was placed on the prohibited substance list in 2012. Investigation led the source of the positives back to a supplement manufactured by a reputable feed company. 

“I didn’t even know about it,” Schumacher said. “Why would we expect everyone else without a medical background think it [is similar to GABA]. There was no expectation to realize it’s illegal. We’re not looking for every [little thing]—there are plenty. We’re trying to enforce rules. There are probably more individuals than the four that work in my office that are thinking ways to circumvent the rules.”

Following this instance, trainers with violations were issued warnings and USEF sent out a press release to make sure everyone understood.   

“You think we’re trying to get every single person. We want to compete fairly with the horse in mind and not maintain an unlevel playing environment,” he said.

Avoiding A Bad Apple

Freddie Vasquez, a top hunter and show jumper, brought up the concern over security at horse shows and mentioned that individuals hiring people to sleep with their horses would be a huge expense, a point with which grand prix rider Jimmy Torano was quick to agree.

“At the [CP] National Horse Show [Ky.] I left something at the barn, and I came back in at 10 p.m., and I looked around and thought, ‘I could put anybody here out of business,’ ” Torano said. “That’s really scary. You’re not cheating, but you could get a bad apple—quite literally a bad apple. I could walk down the aisle with apples injected with something and put someone out of business.” 

Since change to GR404 passed, questions have been raised about how the Federation would suspend support personnel that might not have a USEF membership, such as grooms or veterinarians. There was a recent effort to require veterinarians treating on show grounds to be USEF members, but that rule failed to pass.

As it stands, non-members would be banned from the showgrounds, the same as a member would be if they were caught in violation of the rules.

Another concern has been how situations regarding catch riders would be resolved, as many catch riders want to know what their defense would be should the need arise.

“If you’ve had a positive come up, you’re contacted by the Federation,” said Keating. “Initially we reach out to the owner, trainer of record and the trainer identified on the ID card filled out at the horse show when the sample is collected. There is the opportunity to get response from individuals and those are evaluated before the charge is issued.

“For a catch rider, all of that would come out, we hope, in the initial stages of the investigation,” she continued. “If it’s clear it’s a catch rider, it’s unlikely we’re going to go after a catch rider. It is intended to hold accountable individuals who are responsible.”

Welton opened the room for discussion, asking if we need to do more and if we do, should we go to the way the Fédération Equestre Internationale handles drug violations? In that case, the horse would also be set down. A straw vote said that yes, those in attendance would like to see the horse barred from competing. 

“I think it’s a decent first step,” said Murray Kessler, an amateur competitor and father of Olympian Reed Kessler, who also sits on the board of the USEF and the North American Riders Group. “The horse ought to be held accountable. You see a horse that’s been tested positive and then the next week it’s out and is champion. There is a huge outcry from the public; they just don’t understand [how that could happen].

“The benefit of setting down the horse is public perception,” he continued. “People are asking, ‘Why is a horse caught cheating, competing?’ There’s a secondary benefit—all the people not suspended should be furious. The industry needs to gets mad. We may not be setting down people, but we need to be questioning, ‘What the heck happened?’ ”

Welton also posed the question of whether we should publish findings from the USEF Hearing Committee. He took a straw vote of the room and everyone raised their hands to say yes, we should publish those findings.

Where Are Your Membership Dues Going?

Kessler pointed out that there are real financial repercussions for all members when lawsuits are brought against the Federation.

“The point of this town hall is that our industry is in a horrible state, and there’s been plenty of outcry against the abuse because instead of being ashamed when they’re found guilty, they sue the Federation, which uses our resources, which then don’t go toward our sport,” said Kessler. 

While Keating pointed out that the USEF has always successfully defended Hearing Committee decisions in open court, it’s not cheap. In 2014 the USEF spent $431,933 on legal fees, up from $248,957 in 2013, much of which went toward arbitration with USA Eq Trust over the purchase of their building. This year a high-profile USEF Hearing Committee decision came into the spotlight when Brigid Colvin filed a civil suit against the USEF in New York State court after being fined and suspended after a horse she trained, Inclusive, tested positive at USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. 

“It is costing us a ridiculous amount of money to defend these lawsuits,” said Welton. “We need everyone’s help in that regard as well, from a social standpoint, so that it’s not acceptable behavior. I don’t want to deprive anyone of their right to sue. But it’s costing you your money that should be going to other programs.”

There will be a second Town Hall Meeting on Drugs and Medications Accountability during the 2016 USEF Annual Meeting taking place Jan. 13-16, 2016, in Lexington, Ky.  

Want more opinions on the Drugs and Medication Accountability? We had a thoughtful Horseman’s Forum by Brian Wood in the Dec. 7 issue and a Between Rounds column by Armand Leone in the Oct. 26 issue. What are you missing if you don’t subscribe? 

 

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