You and your horse have just ridden one of your best tests ever at the spring’s biggest regional show. As you walk out of the arena, praising your mount and sharing congratulations with your trainer, you notice a young woman with a backpack carrying what looks like a cup on a stick. The technician approaches, introduces herself and says, “Your horse has been selected for testing.” Your stomach flutters even though you know you haven’t done anything wrong.
“There are two main purposes of the USEF Drugs and Medications Program,” said Stephen Schumacher, DVM, chief administrator of the USEF Drugs and Medications Program. “First, to protect the welfare of the horse and secondly, to provide balanced competition and a level playing field. We help make sure everyone is competing under the same conditions, not just for the other horses in your class, but for those competing in your division at a show three states away.”
While the original program may have been established to address concerns with unethical trainers purposefully abusing their horses’ medication in order to gain an advantage, today the face of equestrian sport has, for the most part, changed for the better. According to Schumacher, most drug violations are simply inadvertent mistakes made without harmful intent and could have been avoided by competitors making sure they understood the USEF Drugs and Medications Rules. “Most people have a general understanding of what’s OK and what’s not,” noted Schumacher. “But don’t make assumptions, and take the time to educate yourself before ever entering the arena.”
Keeping It Clean
Competitors should understand that all substances are broken down into one of three classifications, including Permitted, Restricted and Forbidden:
• Permitted substances are just that—permitted for use in a horse who is competing in USEF shows.
• Restricted substances are also allowed, but they must be within specific limits. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs fall within this category, but there are restrictions as to dosage and how frequently they may be administered. For instance, if bute is detected in a sample, as long as the plasma concentration does not exceed the allowed amount and the administration was in accordance with published guidelines, it is not a violation. Examples of restricted substances include dexamethasone, diclofenac (Surpass®), firocoxib (Equioxx®), phenylbutazone (bute) and flunixin meglamine (Banamine).
• Forbidden substances should not be found in the horse at all at the time of competition. “In these cases, if it’s in the horse, it’s a violation,” said Schumacher. “Even if someone had innocent intentions, just the fact that it’s present in the horse is not allowed and that person is held responsible. This is why the varying withdrawal and detection times for medications are so critical for exhibitors and their veterinarians to understand, so they can make sure the substance is fully clear of the horse’s body before going to a show.” However, there are very specific circumstances where some forbidden medications can be legitimately used as part of treatment but only for emergencies (see sidebar on p. 62). Examples of forbidden substances include acepromazine, antihistamines, atropine, lavender and lemon balm.
By the Numbers
Schumacher reported that between 20 to 25 percent of USEF-licensed competitions are tested annually and between 14,000 and 17,000 individual samples are processed each year, with less than 1 percent resulting in a positive test. “The reason we have such a low rate of positive findings is due to the fact that we have the program in place—it’s a deterrent to potential violators just by its existence. If we weren’t doing this, unfortunately, abuse would probably be much more prevalent,” he noted. Shows are randomly selected by the USEF Drugs and Medications office based on several factors, including availability of testing vets and technicians, level of competition and prize money offered, location of the show and frequency of testing in the past.
Dressage rider and trainer Karen Ball, of Coto de Caza, California, whole-heartedly agreed that the USEF Drugs and Medications Program is working for everyone’s best interest, even if it means an extra fee on the entry form and a mild inconvenience when one of her horses is selected for testing at a show. “Sure, sometimes we wonder where all those fees go, so when the testers are at the show it’s nice to see our money going to use,” she said. “I would welcome more testing, even at every competition. It helps assure fairness for all of us.”
Due to USEF’s widespread sampling program, drug testers are frequent visitors to horse shows, and for those exhibitors who compete on a regular basis, it may seem as if they are wearing a bull’s-eye on their riding jackets. “Sometimes we feel like we’re always the ones being tested, but then we look around and realize that others are, of course, being tested, too,” noted Ball. “But when you get tested over and over, sometimes it does feel like we’re targeted, even though we know we’re not.”
Schumacher is quick to dispel any myth that selection is based upon any possible suspicion of medication abuse and that, while the USEF Drugs and Medications office does provide recommendations for how horses are chosen at competitions, it is ultimately up to the individual testing veterinarian. “How horses are selected is dependent upon the testing vet’s discretion and varies widely between different types of competition,” said Schumacher. “Our official recommendation is to be as random as possible with a little more weight on higher-placing horses, so a consistent winner will probably have a greater likelihood of being tested more often.” However, for disciplines such as dressage, where results aren’t announced until long after a horse finishes his test, Schumacher noted that generally horses are chosen on a truly random basis.
In the high-intensity atmosphere of a horse show, having your horse selected for testing immediately upon exiting the arena can be distracting and, for some, a downright hassle. Regardless of sentiment, USEF rules require an exhibitor’s cooperation with veterinarians and compliance with the testing process. Riders and trainers are strongly urged to accompany the horse and the technicians during the time that samples are collected, labeled and sealed, and to serve as witness to these procedures. “We strongly encourage competitors to be a part of the process from the very start, observe their horse’s collection and ask questions,” Schumacher continued. “We want to have a positive interaction with the exhibitor, and many people thank us and appreciate seeing their money at work. We realize that people are spending a lot of their money and time to compete their horses and we don’t want to intrude on their experience. We just want to make sure all the horses are OK and everyone is competing fairly.”
Stay on the Safe Side
As noted earlier, the majority of positive tests are from misuse of medications and are not necessarily an intentional attempt to do something harmful or impactful on a horse’s performance. Many of these mistakes involve use of forbidden substances in treating a horse’s injury or illness and then failing to properly file a USEF Medication Form. This form, which is completed by the trainer in cooperation with the treating veterinarian and is submitted to the show office within one hour of treatment (or within one hour of the show office opening if treatment was after hours), is used to account for how and why a substance was used and explain the specific circumstances surrounding its administration. Forbidden medications and the resulting documentation can be utilized only in very specific therapeutic situations and, in addition, the horse must be withdrawn from the competition for a minimum of 24 hours.
“A good example of this would be in the treatment of colic. But remember, many forbidden substances are still not allowed under any circumstances. And mane-pulling, shoeing, clipping and trailering are just some of the things that are not considered emergency procedures or legitimate therapeutic purposes for use of a sedative or any other forbidden substance,” continued Schumacher. “So use care and be very specific on the form—we need to know exactly why a medication is given. We look at every single medication form that comes to our office from all the shows and will counsel veterinarians about proper use of medications and use of the form. We’re not out to get people—we take the approach that we try to educate people to avoid future trouble by sharing knowledge about our program and how to stay in compliance.”
They’re Here to Help
Schumacher emphasized that the USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Rules (Chapter 4 of the USEF Rule Book) are a must read for all members and will help avoid inadvertent violations. In particular, competitors should review the USEF Drugs and Medications Guidelines (this pamphlet is available for free download from the USEF website) as well as talk with their veterinarian about any and all medications and substances used for their horse. The USEF Drugs and Medications office welcomes questions from exhibitors and veterinarians, even operating an after-hours phone line in the case of emergency. “Call us, we’re here to help,” noted Schumacher. “Of course, if there’s an emergency, first and foremost always get the best veterinary care possible and whatever treatment is needed for the welfare of your horse. While we can’t provide specific veterinary-care advice, we are here to provide guidance as to whether or not the horse can return to competition following treatment and how to comply with drug rules and avoid violations. Our staff has decades of experience in answering these questions and are always happy to help.”
For more information or questions about the USEF Equine Drugs and Medications Program, call 800-633-2472, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit usef.org.
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Dressage Today magazine.